NEW YORK — Fittingly, Liam Hendriks wore his cap backward. A reliever is going to start a team’s postseason opener.
A pitcher with no wins in the regular season. A pitcher cut from the 40-man roster in June who spent two months toiling in the minor leagues.
A pitcher from Down Under who was happy to get medieval in New York.
“Instead of the starter going six and handing it over to the bullpen or going five and handing it over to the bullpen, now we’re just reversing it,” Oakland’s Australian right-hander said Tuesday, a day ahead of the Athletics’ AL wild-card game against the New York Yankees.
New York’s Aaron Boone made a more conventional choice for his postseason game as a manager, picking Luis Severino over J.A. Happ and Masahiro Tanaka. Severino created a bullpen night in last year’s wild-card game but not by design, lasting just one out and leaving with a three-run deficit against Minnesota in a game the Yankees rallied to win 8-4.
Oakland manager Bob Melvin has been scrambling because of injuries to starting pitchers Jharel Cotton, Kendall Graveman, Sean Manaea, Paul Blackburn, Andrew Triggs and Daniel Gossett. Yet, the A’s finished second in the AL West at 97-65, their best record in 16 years, and their relievers went 45-16, the second-most bullpen wins in big league history behind Tampa Bay’s 54 this year.
“There’s been a struggle between old-school mentality and sabermetrics, and this is a way to kind of incorporate sabermetrics with effectiveness,” Oakland closer Blake Treinen said. “You can’t say going a starter for seven innings is the best way. You can’t say that going an opener is the best way. But this is what’s going to work for us, and we’re going to ride it out, and we have full faith in whoever makes the decisions. I’m excited to see what this game does because it’s kind of a first of its kind, and I think we all fully embrace that.”
Yankees reliever Zach Britton, a two-time All-Star reliever with Baltimore, said this new method was unfathomable just five years ago. Views started to change when the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians used bullpens in a non-traditional manner in the 2016 postseason. Tampa Bay was 46-38 with regular starters this year and 44-34 when opening with relievers.
“I think the data shows that it’s an effective way,” Britton said. “The hitters, they’re not able to get comfortable off a starter. There’s a new guy possibly every time you come to the plate. So it’s a good strategy, and you know why teams are starting to do it, because it’s effective.”
Hendriks, a 29-year-old in his third season with Oakland, started for Minnesota (2011-14) and Kansas City (2014) before Toronto converted him to the bullpen in 2015. He had a 7.36 ERA in 13 relief appearances this season when he was designated for assignment on June 25 to clear a roster spot for Edwin Jackson.
Then 40-38, the A’s won their next six games and 11 of 13.
“Apparently I’m a pariah,” Hendriks said jokingly.
After 21 appearances with Triple-A Nashville, he was brought back on Sept. 1 when active rosters expanded to 40. As Hendriks was checking into a hotel in Oakland that day, he received a telephone call from pitching coach Scott Emerson.