Closing in on glory: White Sox's Aussie all-star Liam Hendriks itching for playoff baseball

With playoffs a near certainty for the Chicago White Sox, all-star closer and resident Australian Liam Hendriks can't wait to get back to the promised land of October baseball - and he's not going to let complacency drag his performances down at the critical moment.

With less than a month remaining in Major League Baseball's regular season, Hendriks' White Sox hold a ten-game lead over the Cleveland Indians -- set to become the Guardians in 2022 -- in the American League Central Division ahead of their weekend series with the Boston Red Sox; well on their way towards a first divisional title since Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, and Mark Buehrle stalked the South Side in 2008.

With the Tampa Bay Rays comfortably clear in the race for the one-seed, their most pressing battle at this stage of the campaign appears to be with AL West Leaders the Houston Astros over the league's second-seed -- an achievement which would bring with it home-field advantage in the AL Divisional Series (which effectively serves as the quarterfinals for the World Series).

Thus, even in a 162-game season, the razor-thin margins of a single win -- a converted save against a blown one -- can make a big difference.

For his part, Hendriks has many fond memories in the post-season - including knocking out his current club with the Oakland Athletics in the 2020 American League Wild Card Series. Though he's quick to avoid tempting fate by pointing out that his team still needs to get there, he says that the idiom of there being nothing like October baseball rings true, especially with fans set to be back in the stands for this year's iteration.

"The atmosphere is just different," the Perth-born reliever told ESPN's Beyond The Lead podcast. "It's got a different vibe to it.

"We were in Oakland with no fans last year, but we were in Oakland the year before against the Rays in a game we lost, it was a do or die game and unfortunately we lost but the atmosphere was incredible.

"The year before was in Yankee Stadium (Hendriks became the first-ever Australian to start an MLB postseason game when he took the mound for the Athletics in the 2018 American League Wild Card Game) and that was the loudest stadium I've been in.

"I can't wait to see how loud the fans in Chicago get during the playoffs if we make it.

"I'm excited for it, but the biggest thing is you kind of [need to] control that. That's where experience really comes through. If you've got guys that have been there before they know what to do a little bit more than the first-timers who can kind of let the emotions, let the atmosphere get to them a little too much."

From Perth, Hendriks grew up playing both baseball and Australian rules football as a youngster -- eligible to be drafted to the West Coast Eagles as a father-son pick thanks to his father Geoff's career in the WAFL -- before focusing on the former in his teenage years and signing with the Minnesota Twins when he turned 18.

After rising up through the minor leagues and logging stints with the Twins, Toronto Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals, and Athletics, he signed with the Chi Sox from Oakland last offseason: inking a three-year deal, with a team option for a fourth, worth a minimum of USD $54 million - breaking the record average annual value for a relief pitcher in the process.

Hendriks now serves as the Sox's primary closer: a relief pitcher inserted late into games when manager Tony La Russa needs to secure the final outs and record a narrow win - a save situation.

Prior to the commencement of this weekend's series, the 32-year-old led the AL and was second in all of MLB in saves with 33, was limiting opposing batters to a .179 batting average, had a WHIP -- the number of batters he allows to get a hit or walk per inning -- of 0.77 and a career-high mark of 14.2 strikeouts per nine innings. He was named an all-star for the second time earlier in the season.

However, this had been contrasted with a frustrating 11 home runs allowed -- the most since he was a starter with the Twins in 2012 -- and six blown saves - which at one point led the AL.

And despite seemingly beginning to get back to his best just as the campaign entered its final stretch, Hendriks has been frustrated by what he sees as an inability to deliver consistent performances on the mound.

"I started off a little poor, didn't start off the way that I wanted to," he explained.

"Then I had a good long stretch in the middle where I was doing what I expected to, I was having some success. And then I've hit a couple of road bumps here and there.

"I think the biggest thing is that I expected myself to come in here and be consistent. That's been the one thing that hasn't really been there this year. The highs have been high but the lows have been low. There's been no kind of stay along the plateau.

"Hopefully, we finish with a high at the end of the season, take that into October -- hopefully, we make it -- and we're able to run away with it.

"But the big thing for me is it was a bit inconsistent and that's something that I really need to work on and that's the one thing why I say it's not the season I envisioned - purely based on the fact that I want to be known as someone that's consistent.

"Be that at the elite level [or the] mediocre level, I want to be consistent with where I'm at and not so worry about which Liam is showing up today.

"I'd say about seven [of the home runs] were bad pitches. Seven of them were either bad pitches or badly timed pitches. There's been a couple where they just beat me. It was what it is, you tip your hat at that point.

"The ball's been jumping off the bat a little bit more than I'm used to but, then again, you look at everything else and every other metric is up. It just happens to be that when they hit it they hit hard (advanced stats bear this out: opposing batter's fly ball and hard-hit percentages against Hendriks well up on his 2020 numbers while their ground ball rate is down) and when they don't hit it they don't hit it at all.

"My [strike out] rate is up, my walk rate is down. I think my hits per nine is down. I think everything's trending in the right direction except the home runs and the ERA, which is unfortunate. But it's part and parcel, but I'd prefer to be beaten by a solo homer than walking the bases, that's for sure."

Nonetheless, with the playoffs set to commence on October 3, Hendriks believes that some mental adjustments mean that he's well-placed to contribute as part of the White Sox push for a first World Series title since 2005.

"I think I'm a little more cognisant of... not an effort level per se, but I think I was getting a little complacent because that's what happens when I have those long stretches of success," he said.

"All of a sudden, you get complacent, you... not necessarily don't put the work in or don't try hard enough, but you figure it's going to come. That's the most dangerous time.

"This time I'm a little more cognisant of making sure that I'm focused on what I need to be focused on rather than getting the outlying efforts going around.

"I think that's been the biggest thing, complacency is one of the biggest killers of me."