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Brewers' closer spent offseason in Arizona

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By Tom Haudricourt
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
February 19, 2014

PHOENIX--Jim Henderson’s timing was impeccable in deciding to spend the entire winter in Arizona.

The Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen closer hails from Calgary, Alberta, where a polar vortex is possible on any day ending with the letter “y.” While accustomed to that Nanook-of-the-North lifestyle, Henderson admitted it was quite nice to winter in the Phoenix area.

“I picked the right winter to come down for the warmth,” he said. “It’s been a tough winter for everybody.”

Henderson’s decision to relocate to the desert was not solely to increase comfort level and hold down heating costs. The relocation kept him near the Brewers’ training base at Maryvale Baseball Park, where he could throw regularly—outdoors—and be better prepared for the start of spring training.

Having stuck his foot firmly in the team’s closing door last season, the hard-throwing right-hander didn’t want to lose ground.

“Basically, it’s just more to take advantage of the opportunity that’s ahead of me here,” he explained. “I’m a big believer in coming down to spring training early, and I like getting down from the cold in Canada.

“It kind of turned into a no-brainer for me. The training facility is down here; the trainers are here year-round. Cost of living is expensive in Canada compared to here. So I said, let’s do it.”

After spending 10 years in the minors before finally getting to the major leagues in 2012, Henderson had no preconceived notions about playing a major role with the Brewers last season as a 30-year-old rookie. He began the season as a setup man but quickly moved into the closer’s job when John Axford suffered an early meltdown.

Later, when Henderson was sidelined with a hamstring strain, veteran Francisco Rodriguez took over as closer. After “K-Rod” was traded to Baltimore in late July, Henderson again assumed closing duties and finished with a flourish.

All told, Henderson converted 28 of 32 save opportunities while posting a 2.70 earned run average over 61 appearances. He held opponents to a .200 batting average and recorded 75 strikeouts with only 44 hits allowed in 60 innings.

Henderson not only notched 18 saves in his last 19 chances, but he also converted opportunities in 12 consecutive appearances from late July to late August, establishing a club mark.

Though the Brewers brought Rodriguez back for a third stint with the club just before spring training, Henderson remains the team’s closer. But, to no one’s surprise, the unassuming Canadian is taking nothing for granted.

“The last couple of years, my time in Milwaukee it’s been back and forth from the closer’s role,” he said. “I do have a bit of experience now, so I think it’s just about grabbing hold of the reins a little bit. I’m still going to learn from Frankie; he taught me a lot last year. I think he was that final piece of the team that we needed.”

Henderson closed games at several stops during his long journey through the minors but doing it in the big leagues is a completely different level of pressure. As with all closers, you know every time you take the mound it’s going to be goat or hero.

“Last year, still, I felt like I was just holding that job, just holding it temporarily with Ax and Frankie there,” he said. “When both of them got traded (Axford was dealt to St. Louis in late August), that’s when it started to kind of open my eyes and see that I can do this.

“There was nobody else to back you up, so you had to go out there and just kind of make it your own. I think after they got traded, I needed to step up and take control of that role a little bit more.”

Henderson was not the only advanced-aged rookie to make his mark in the bullpen last season. Right-hander Brandon Kintzler, 29, emerged as the primary setup man, posting a 2.69 ERA with 26 holds in 71 relief appearances.

Kintzler got better as the season progressed with a 2.09 ERA over his last 59 appearances. He retired 52 of 71 first batters faced and stranded 16 of 21 inherited runners.

That showing allowed Kintzler to come to camp for the first time also with some job security. But, as with Henderson, he is assuming nothing until he sees his name on the opening day roster.

“I feel a little more, I don’t want to say relaxed, but less stressed,” said Kintzler. “I can just get ready for the season. Last year, I got hot and just took off. When you’re given the opportunity to succeed and you do it, hopefully you establish yourself.

“I don’t think in one year you earn your stripes. You’ve probably got to do it a few times. I’m sure I have some doubters, but I don’t care. That’s why you like baseball. It doesn’t really matter who you are or what round you got drafted in. Once you get in pro ball, you’re even. All you have to do is put up numbers.

“The Brewers will give you a chance if you put up numbers. Some organizations don’t do that.”

Manager Ron Roenicke knows Henderson and Kintzler well enough to realize they won’t ease off the pedal after experiencing one strong year in the majors. And while it would take a major meltdown for either to miss making the club this spring, he expects both to stay focused on the tasks at hand.

“I won’t have to have conversations with them,” said Roenicke. “But I’ll just make sure they know, ‘Let’s still go at this like you’re trying to make the team, and stay healthy and have the years they had last year.’

“With the years they had, I don’t want them to do anything different. They realize it’s a short window (for relievers in the majors); it really is. That window can end in a hurry, too. So they have to do the right things.”

Rodriguez, who went 10 for 10 in save opportunities for the Brewers last season while posting a 1.09 ERA in 25 outings, provides coverage for both Henderson and Kintzler. Swingman Will Smith likely will fill one left-handed role in the bullpen and veteran Tom Gorzelanny another if he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery in time for opening day.

The Brewers are intrigued by 21-year-old lefty Wei-Chung Wang, a Rule 5 draft pick who must make the jump from rookie ball or be offered back to Pittsburgh. Others expected to get good looks include Rob Wooten, Michael Blazek, Alfredo Figaro and Donovan Hand, now a non-roster player.

“There’s going to be a lot of guys fighting for a couple of jobs,” said Roenicke. “All of them pitched well for us last year. Unfortunately, there are going to be some guys disappointed at the end. We do (have more pitchers than spots), no doubt about it.”



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