The smile never left Liam Hendriks’s face as he discussed his key role in the A’s first postseason series win since 2006. It couldn’t—he was wearing a mask emblazoned with his own gap-toothed grin.
The look was a definite improvement over his attire just a few minutes earlier. The A’s celebrated their 6–4 win in Game 3 of the American League Wild Card Series the way they have celebrated every other win this season: They drag around the sort of putting mat you might find in a CEO’s office and ask the MVP of the game to hole out. Hendriks likes to make his attempts in the nude.
Fully clothed and just off a bogey, Oakland’s closer addressed the media over Zoom.
“To be honest,” he said, “I need a nap.”
Fair enough: The A’s had just played three straight noon games, a league scheduling choice that allowed the Yankees to play in primetime all week and that reliever Jake Diekman called “horses---.” They had family in the stands but no fans to bring energy. The White Sox won Game 1. The A’s took Game 2. And Hendriks had just thrown his 68th pitch in two days to close out Thursday's Game 3.
The first 49 had been a battle, as he struggled to create depth on his slider in Game 2. He got five outs but gave up two runs, failed to finish the game and generally looked exhausted. It was hard to believe manager Bob Melvin afterward when he insisted that Hendriks would be available in Game 3. Yet there was Hendriks 24 hours later, using a different slider grip and pumping 99 mph fastballs to strike out Nomar Mazara and begin the celebration.
“It was a mixture of adrenaline, fear,” Hendriks said. “It was a whole range of emotions floating through there. I think I could actually feel my wife scowling from the suites behind us.”
The A’s have not given their fans many chances to smile in October recently. They dropped a pair of division series to the Tigers in 2012 and ’13, then lost a twisting, turning, heartbreaking, 12-inning wild-card game to the Royals in ’14. They have spent the past two seasons finishing behind the Astros in the AL West and getting bounced in wild-card games. They attribute some of that difference in seeding to Houston’s illegal sign-stealing scheme.
But this year Houston struggled and Oakland surged, and the expanded playoffs meant that 16 teams played three-game series rather than four teams playing one. The A’s ended up with the second seed and the Astros with the seventh, and now the rivals will meet in an ALDS that will test Oakland’s strategy: “Ride our ‘pen as hard as we can,” as Hendriks put it.
The A’s boasted the best relief corps in the AL during the regular season: a 2.72 ERA, a .616 opponents’ OPS. But there will be no off-days in the division series, meaning no built-in rest for those relievers. And even when the Astros do not know what is coming, their hitters grow exponentially more dangerous the more times they see a pitcher.
Last season, the Yankees spent more than $150 million assembling what they believed would be an impenetrable bullpen. They planned to endure the early innings and then get the ball to their best relievers. Unfortunately, their plan worked: Their best relievers faced the Astros in every game of the ALCS. After Houston won in six, the New York pitchers considered the way they had watched the hitters adjust: They started to get to righty Tommy Kahnle’s inside fastball. They seemed to predict righty Chad Green’s pitch sequencing. They lined all of lefty Zack Britton’s offerings to right field.
And their advantage likely will be compounded coming off a season in which the A’s and Astros made up 17% of one another’s schedule. That familiarity also likely will add to the animosity these teams already feel toward one another. They have already engaged in one bench-clearing brawl this year, and Oakland employs righty Mike Fiers, the former Astro who first described the cheating scheme. The series, which begins on Monday, will add a new chapter to their rivalry.
In the meantime, the A’s and their closer will get some rest. “Hercu-Liam,” Melvin called him as they passed one another after the game. Hendriks liked that one. “I’m going to need a shirt with that on it,” he said. Let’s just hope he wears pants with it.