MILWAUKEE — Jim Henderson had already been through a lot in his minor league career. Injuries, eight disabled list trips in 10 years to be exact, had already set him back.
But the one that got him occurred when he was so close to overcoming it all and breaking through to the major leagues.
After the Cubs selected him in the 2006 Rule 5 Draft from the Expos organization, Henderson had a good year in Double-A and got his first crack at pitching in Triple-A. Then a shoulder injury ended his season in 2008 and he was released, just like that.
For the first time in his long baseball odyssey, Henderson believed his big-league dream might be over. The Brewers – the team he now closes games for — signed him as a minor league free agent, but his journey started all over again in Single-A.
“I then had to go back through the A-balls and work my way up through the minor leagues again,” Henderson said. “Going through it once is fine, going through it twice, that’s the difficult part.
“Then I was a free agent every time after the minor league seasons. Even though the Brewers signed me back a few times, sometimes they called me, sometimes I called them. There were times where it was worrisome what my future held for me.”
In just four years, Henderson went from a guy having to restart his career and calling teams himself for minor league jobs to making his big-league debut as a 29-year-old.
Benefiting from a bullpen that was struggling mightily, Henderson was called up in July and helped stabilize the bullpen by posting a 3.52 ERA in 36 games. When Milwaukee dismantled its bullpen in the offseason, Henderson was one of two pieces the team wanted back on its roster.
The other was his good friend and then-closer John Axford. Henderson temporarily held the job as closer when Axford struggled in 2012 but couldn’t hold the job himself. With Axford working through struggles again this season, Henderson is back in the closer’s job.
But he doesn’t hope to hold it long, this time for a different reason.
“Hopefully I just have it temporarily and Axford gets the job back,” Henderson said. “He is one of the franchise’s greatest closers. I’m just trying to get the three outs right now and help the team close out the games.
“I’m not trying to take the job for the whole season. I’m just trying to do the job for now.”
In the competitive world of professional sports, Henderson’s openness about wanting his fellow Canadian to take the job he currently holds back doesn’t fit the cutthroat stereotype of the business.
“I’m one of his biggest fans,” Henderson said. “We’ve been friends for a while now, and I support him 100 percent. I’m going to work with him, play catch with him and get him back on track. Hopefully he gets the job back.”
But for now the job belongs to the 30-year-old Henderson. The Brewers haven’t told Henderson anything as far as their longer-term plans for him and Axford.
Right now, he’s just trying to get three outs, and so far he’s had success. Henderson pitched five scoreless innings before allowing his first run of the season while notching his second save Tuesday night against San Francisco.
“Henderson was maybe a little bit off there,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said of his outing Tuesday. “But he knew what he had to do to get through the inning.”
Henderson’s closing mindset is to force the other team to beat him. Henderson is focused on not beating himself with walks and other mistakes that give the opponent free bases. So far he’s done that, as Henderson has yet to walk a batter in his six innings.
Though his time as closer was short-lived in 2012, Henderson learned a valuable lesson he’s carried over to his second chance at finishing games. In one of his last games as closer, he blew a save at Coors Field in Colorado, and he admits now the game got too fast for him.
“In the ninth inning, you just have to slow things down and take it a pitch at a time, an out at a time, and just make sure nothing gets too far ahead of you,” Henderson said.
Milwaukee’s bullpen led the league in blown saves and was last in bullpen ERA a year ago. Bullpen struggles played a large role in the Brewers missing the playoffs, and the rebuilt bullpen is getting roughed up again this season. Roenicke has had to constantly shuffle roles just to get through games.
If Henderson can hold down the ninth inning, at least while Axford gets back on track, the Brewers can begin to define roles, something important to a successful bullpen.
“I don’t know about the other guys, but I know I like when I know I’m pitching so I can be prepared stretching wise and mentally,” Henderson said. “Sometimes you are down in the bullpen and you are far away from everything and your mind can travel and get away from you. It’s good to know when you can get focused in and get locked in on what you need to do.”
The life as a relief pitcher is one that can change on a dime. One bad outing balloons the ERA and two or three bad outings leaves fans turning quickly. Henderson knows this. He’s watched Axford go from a dominant closer and fan favorite to searching for answers in less than a year.
But he also knows how hard he worked to get to this point, and knowing what he overcame to become a big-league closer makes his success that much sweeter.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” Henderson said. “It was just a great experience last year, and that was all good and fun. This year, I’ve experienced being at the big-league level, and it’s time to focus in and just do my job the best I can. The nerves are kind of gone now. Now it’s just baseball for me.”