When the Minnesota Twins optioned Liam Hendriks to Triple-A Rochester earlier this month, they asked him to focus on pounding the strike zone with his fastball and improving his breaking pitches.
The 23-year-old Australian took the advice to heart and is trying to work his way back into the Twins' rotation plans.
Minnesota's No. 7 prospect allowed an unearned run on five hits and two walks while fanning nine batters over seven innings Thursday as the Red Wings beat the host Gwinnett Braves, 3-1.
"[Minnesota pitching coach] Rick Anderson let me know that I will be back at some point," Hendriks said. "He said to remember what got me here, which is pounding the strike zone and getting a lot of ground balls. I did that quite well during my Minor League career, but I got away from it in my last two big league starts.
"I'm feeling a lot stronger now, and hopefully, I will get the chance to go back up there and get back to where I was at the start of the year."
On Thursday, Hendriks struck out two batters to work around second baseman Ray Chang's throwing error in the first inning, and he used an inning-ending groun- ball double play to erase a one-out walk and a single in the second.
The Australia native fanned Ernesto Mejia to strand two runners on base in the third inning, but he was not as fortunate in the fourth.
Josh Wilson and J.C. Boscan recorded consecutive two-out singles, and Wilson came home to score from second base when third baseman Danny Valencia was unable to field Lance Zawadzki's ground ball cleanly.
From there, the right-hander cruised, facing the minimum nine batters over the next three frames before turning things over to the bullpen. The only batter to reach base against Hendriks in his final three innings was Luis Durango, who beat out an infield single to begin the fifth, but was then picked off.
"I felt really good," Hendriks said. "There were a couple walks which I'm quite disappointed with and some two-out hits which I need to get better about, but I had a good feel for my pitches.
"My fastball and curveball were working well and my changeup was good. My slider stayed low and I couldn't bring it back up in the strike zone, but it had a little bit of extra life on it tonight."
In four International League starts since his demotion, Hendriks is 3-0 with a 1.40 ERA. He has allowed five runs -- four earned -- over 25 2/3 innings, and he has struck out 23 batters while walking eight.
The 6-foot-1 right-hander went 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in four big league outings this year. After allowing one run against the Texas Rangers in his season debut on April 15, Hendriks got progressively less effective. He surrendered four runs over 5 2/3 innings in Tampa Bay on April 25 and he yielded seven runs over four frames five days later against Boston.
The final straw for Hendriks came on May 2 when he gave up six runs on nine hits over just 2 1/3 innings against the Los Angeles Angels -- notable for Jered Weaver's no-hitter.
Hendriks hopes a couple subtle changes will get him back to the Majors.
"I get more movement on the ball when I'm not trying to. The four-seamer has extra life and the two-seamer breaks instead of drifts when I drop my arm angle," he said.
"I've been pretty slow with runners on base, so I changed my leg kick from the set position. I've been working on staying back and bringing my leg back rather than picking it up. It's a low drive now."
Signed by the Twins as a non-drafted free agent in 2007, Hendriks is yet to earn his first Major League win. In eight career starts in Minnesota, he is 0-4 with a 7.41 ERA.
"I started getting away from my strengths by trying to pitch to hitters' weaknesses," Hendriks said about throwing breaking balls instead of sticking to his fastball-first game plan. "You look at the stats, and even if your strength is also the hitter's strength, the pitcher will win that battle most of the time.
"I had a rough couple starts so I understand where [the Twins] are coming from. It's a little bit disappointing, but Scott Diamond is throwing very well up there and now it's my job to get back."
On Thursday, Anthony Slama and Tyler Robertson combined to pitch a scoreless eighth inning, and Red Wings' closer Casey Fien allowed one hit and struck out a batter in the ninth.
Gwinnett starter Yohan Flande allowed a run on five hits and a walk while striking out three batters over seven innings, but didn't factor into the decision. Adam Russell (3-1) surrendered a pair of runs on three hits and a walk in an inning of work. Durango and Wilson each went 3-for-4 in the losing cause.