Australian pitcher Liam Hendriks is an unlikely hero in Royals’ victory

08/27/2014 11:03 PM

08/28/2014 11:57 AM

Liam Hendriks is from Perth in Western Australia, a remote and improbable wellspring for baseball.

His high school baseball team, such as it was, had been “set up purely for me and another guy,” he said Tuesday, laughing.

He began playing T-ball at age 6, he said, “purely based on the fact that my parents didn’t want to sit around for 12 hours every Saturday and watch me play cricket. T-ball was only half an hour long.

“They chose the right one, apparently.”

That background is just part of what made Hendriks an unlikely presence on the mound for the Royals on Wednesday against Minnesota, the franchise that signed him in 2007 and mustered only one run in seven innings against him in a 6-1 Royals’ victory.

“What else could you ask for?” marveled manager Ned Yost after the game.

Especially because Yost had no idea, really, what he was going to get from a pitcher who had been 3-13 with a 6.06 ERA in big-league play.

It would have to go better than that Aaron Brooks meltdown at Toronto wouldn’t it, but who knew how much better?

“Going into a game like this, I don’t know what to expect,” Yost said, adding, “I knew (his) name, but I can’t really remember him pitching against us.”

And his vague trail had been particularly hard to trace the last few months: Hendriks, who reckons he’s the 31st Australian major-leaguer, might as well have been on a walkabout.

When the Royals acquired him from Toronto along with catcher Erik Kratz in exchange for infielder Danny Valencia on July 28, he joined his fifth organization since Dec. 12, 2013.

“A numbers game,” Hendriks called the dizzying dynamic that whirled him from the Minnesota organization to the Cubs (for 10 days) to Baltimore to Toronto before Kansas City.

For all that disruption, though, he found himself some this season. He went 12-2 with a 2.45 ERA in Class AAA, including 4-1 and 2.83 with Omaha, and he could tell he was “filling in” to his body.

His velocity was increasing with mechanical adjustments and better health as complications from bone chips were further behind. First-pitch strikes had become habit instead of hope.

But even when he got called in for his call-up Monday, Hendriks initially thought he was in trouble … not on his way to join the parent team in a pennant race.

For all this disorienting stuff, though, Hendriks was remarkably composed when he arrived, Yost said.

And had an uncanny sense of what he was walking into as he was filling in for Yordano Ventura, who missed the start because of back stiffness.

For one thing, Hendriks knew his Royals history and, thus, the stakes.

“The last time they made the playoffs (1985) was the year my wife was born,” said Hendriks, 25. “So, you can either take that as she’s really old or it hasn’t been that long.

“I don’t consider it that long,” he added with a smile, “because I like to stay in her good graces.”

But that wasn’t the only way Hendriks sensed, and lived up to, the moment.

One of the best things about this Royals team is its balance and, in recent weeks, depth.

For instance, they entered Wednesday as the only team in baseball with eight players who have 40 or more RBIs. (It’s nine if you count Josh Willingham, but 34 of his 40 were with Minnesota).

What they lack in superstar numbers and sizzle, they make up for with an ever-revolving cast making the difference from night to night.

“It seems like it’s always different guys doing the jobs to get them over … It’s incredible,” Hendriks said. “It’s not just those two or three guys who are doing it every night. It’s one through nine, it’s one through five in the rotation. It’s the bullpen.

“Everybody’s had their part where they’ve made this team as successful as it is.”

On Wednesday, even if it was just for a night with Ventura expected back for his next start, Hendriks was another addition to the list.

All the sweeter for him that it came in a matchup not only against his original team but against the very pitcher (Phil Hughes) in whose favor Hendriks was designated for assignment.

At a time where every inning is magnified and could be pivotal to the Royals’ postseason hopes, he gave the team seven important ones to bind them in the game before they finally got on the board late.

Out of nowhere, as his contribution would have seemed only weeks ago.

It’s a fitting tale for a team that has needed everyone to win and suddenly seems to be pulling nothing but jackpot levers at every turn.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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