CHIBA – Bouncing up and down between the majors and minors may not be the best way to adjust to a new country and a new league, but it has worked for Rick van den Hurk.
After going 5-1 on the farm to start the season, the 198-cm Fukuoka Softbank Hawks right-hander won his first two games with the top team only to be relegated once more to the farm. Yet despite the speed bump, van den Hurk has just kept rolling. In July, the Dutch international went 3-0 with a 2.53 ERA and was named the Pacific League pitcher of the month.
“That (bouncing around) stuff don’t bother me,” he told Kyodo News on Saturday at QVC Marine Field. “I just try to focus and prepare myself the best I can for every single game, wherever that game is and just focus on that and make sure I throw strikes and do the little things right.”
Van den Hurk hasn’t been the only Hawks starter to get the minor league side track. He switched places with veteran right-hander Jason Standridge once, while misfiring ace Tadashi Settsu was sent down twice, and responded with big wins both times he was recalled.
“I think all of us want to have consistent games as a starting pitcher,” van den Hurk said. “We’re professional enough to adjust and make sure we do the right things. Settsu is an ace, so he knows how to handle everything. For me that’s good to see and I can learn from that.”
Van den Hurk bounced up and down quite a bit in the U.S. before really hitting his stride last season in South Korea with the Samsung Lions. In his second Asian season, he led the Korean Baseball Organization in strikeouts and ERA.
“I signed (two) one-year contracts with Samsung,” he said. “At the same time, I knew Softbank was following me. It was great to know someone was interested. And then we won it all with Samsung, which was great.”
The son of a baseball coach, van den Hurk began playing ball at the age of four and eventually chose the sport over judo and speed skating and went to the United States as a 15-year-old to go to school, a path that led to a professional career, Tommy John surgery and bits of six seasons in the big leagues.
“It’s the first time away from your parents and I’m very young,” he said of his overseas adventure. “Obviously, I’m highly motivated. It took time to adjust there and to learn the culture. But I was always focused on playing baseball and improving myself and learning everyday and that’s something I’ve done my whole career.
“It (life in the minors) is not that bad. I know you have to take certain steps to get to a certain place and that’s part of it. The travel is part of it, the hotels are part of it, the living conditions are part of it. You live with multiple teammates in one apartment, which can be a lot of fun.
“I chose to take that path and I was very grateful to take that path and I signed up to do that. I had a really good time at every level I was at.”
In 2009, at the age of 24, van den Hurk was tasked with saving the Netherlands from elimination in the World Baseball Classic, but was the losing pitcher in a 9-3, second-round defeat to the United States. The Americans went as far as the semifinals at Dodger Stadium, where they were eliminated by eventual champion Japan.
“It (the Dutch team) is not quite as strong compared to other countries that can play year round,” he said. “We cannot play year-round and that makes it tough to play games and get good practices in, but we do our best. We perform well in tournaments and the reason I think we do, is because we have a very strong preparation.”
The Europe team that visited Tokyo in March was coached by Dutch national manager Steve Janssen, and showed some of that preparation when they came within a few outs of beating Japan in Game 1 of a two-game series. Van den Hurk missed out on that event with a hamstring strain, but considering his performance this year and last, he may be one of the first players called by the Dutch for November’s new Premier 12 tournament in Japan and Taiwan.
“If they call my name, I definitely would play. If everything is OK with the team and stuff like that, it should be good,” said van den Hurk, who feels playing abroad is a constant thrill.
“You travel around, you play the game you love and you play with all these guys from all types of cultures and it’s just amazing to learn from everybody and to grow as a baseball player but also as a person. Of course, I love to play this came. To get to play it all over the world, that’s a treat.”
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