The last time Tennessee's Kyle Hendricks flirted with a no-hitter, he was anxious.
"I had one last year where I took a no-hitter into the eighth, and that game I was really nervous, I thought about it a lot," said Hendricks. "So I don't know if it helped, but I was just trying to get ahead of guys today obviously."
Hendricks, without his best command, held Pensacola hitless into the sixth inning and Jae-Hoon Ha hit a walk-off three-run homer to lead the Double-A Smokies past the Blue Wahoos, 3-0, on Monday afternoon.
Pitching in the makeup of Sunday's postponed game, Hendricks struck out eight and allowed just two baserunners before Devin Lohman blooped a single to right field in the sixth. Hendricks struck out Tucker Barnhart swinging to end the inning before handing the ball over to Marcus Hatley, who picked up the win after Ha's home run.
"I felt good, I really struggled getting ahead of guys. But once I got behind, I was able to spot my fastball pretty well, move it in and out, mix it up, get out of those bad counts and get some ground balls," said Hendricks, who is 1-1 with a 3.12 ERA in five starts this year.
Tennessee was on the other end of the storyline in the day's first game, managing just two hits in a 3-0 loss. Hendricks said he was looking forward to the seven-inning game since he'd taken the mound for many similar contests at Dartmouth.
"Going into a seven-inning game, you always want to go a complete game," he said. "I wanted to keep my pitch count down. When I was in college, we played doubleheaders every Saturday and Sunday, and I always started the seven-inning game. I knew what it was like, so I told myself to keep the pitch count down."
Hendricks threw 58 of his 71 pitches for strikes following a solid effort April 23, when he allowed one run on three hits over seven innings but didn't factor into the decision against Montgomery. Despite the economical pitch count Monday, the righty admitted he wasn't as sharp as he could have been.
"I didn't really feel that dominant," he said. "When you're dominating, you're getting quick outs, putting guys away early. I was falling behind, so I had to make an adjustment on some, and like I said, I was able to make good pitches. And if I was 1-0, 2-0, I was getting some easy ground balls."
Hendricks pitched around a few jams in the first five innings. After striking out two in the first, inducing three straight grounders in the second and pitching a 1-2-3 third, he watched Ryan LaMarre reach on a fielding error by shortstop Arismendy Alcantara in the fourth. LaMarre stole second and third but was stranded when Travis Mattair grounded out to end the frame. Barnhart worked a one-out walk in the fifth but never advanced.
"I was able to put them away with my changeup, that was good today," Hendricks said. "My arm speed, my arm angle -- it was a problem, something I was working on in the 'pens, and those were my go-tos today."
Hendricks tinkered with the arm angle and path this past week with Smokies pitching coach Jeff Fassero, a lefty who spent 16 years in the Majors. The 23-year-old had allowed five runs in five innings in his Smokies debut April 5 and endured another rough start April 18.
"In the beginning, my mechanics were off. I dealt with some mechanical issues, but Jeff and I were working hard to iron those out," Hendricks said. "Even just playing catch, I was trying to work on it. In my last start, by the second or third inning, it finally clicked. I started following through in my delivery. I don't know what triggered it, but I know it was feeling really good. My command was a lot better than first three starts."
Hendricks, drafted by Texas, was traded to the Cubs last July with infielder Christian Villanueva for veteran Ryan Dempster. He appeared in five games for the Class A Advanced Daytona Cubs last summer before earning a promotion to Double-A this spring with Chicago.
"It's been great, don't feel any more comfortable here than with Texas. There are great guys in both organizations," he said. "I've had a lot of great teammates and a lot of good players and coaches who know what they're doing. They've been teaching me a lot. So I'm just soaking it all in enjoy the experience and not letting it overwhelm me."
As for the win, Hendricks said he was already back in the locker room finishing his work for the day when Ha, the Cubs' No. 12 prospect, slugged a pinch-hit homer to left off Wilkin De La Rosa to win it.
"The game was tied so I was in the clubhouse finishing my cardio and arm exercises, but I saw it on the TV," Hendricks said.
Tim Crabbe started for the Blue Wahoos and allowed three hits over five innings.