Kevin Slowey went 3-0 in his first seven big-league starts, but he knew he still had work to do. So it wasn't a real shock when Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire took the right-hander aside in July and told him he was heading back to Triple-A Rochester.
How the 2005 second-round draft pick dealt with the move is a big reason why he is MiLB.com's choice for Triple-A Pitcher of the Year.
Slowey had gone 6-2 with a 1.54 ERA over nine starts for Rochester before making his Major League debut in June. Pitchers in similar situations may have sulked or complained that they didn't have anything left to prove at the Minor League level.
To Slowey's credit, he looked at his return trip to the Red Wings differently than most.
"I felt it was more like an assignment than a demotion," said Slowey, who went 4-3 with a 2.21 ERA after rejoining Rochester. "When they sent me back, they did it with encouragment: 'We liked what we saw, but this is what you need to work on, so go work on it. Go down, learn and come back. We want you to come back, we need you to come back, we expect you to come back.'
"Rochester was a great place for me all year. The players, the coaches, the environment were all great. So it was easy to go back there and feel like you weren't missing much."
Slowey wasn't missing much when he was on the hill for the Red Wings. He finished with a 10-5 record and his 1.89 ERA was second only to Class A Augusta's Kevin Pucetas (1.86) in the Minors.
The International League batted just .223 against the Winthrop product, who continued to post one of the most gaudy walk ratios this side of future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.
The right-hander struck out 107 and walked only 18 in 133 2/3 innings. In 353 2/3 career Minor League frames, Slowey boasts a 1.93 ERA, walking 48 and striking out 342. Fantasy players certainly would appreciate the future of a pitcher who had an 0.86 WHIP in the Minors.
Slowey wasn't quite that efficient in his first Major League action, despite the undefeated record. He gave up a lot more hits than usual and walked a few more than he's accustomed to, leading to a 5.84 ERA and a trip back to Rochester. One of the smarter pitchers around, Slowey took a valuable lesson with him back to Triple-A: What works at one level doesn't necessarily work at another.
"At every level is a different type of hitter," Slowey said. "The way to pitch to guys in Double-A and Triple-A was not the way to get hitters out in the big leagues. In the big leagues, the key is to keep the ball low. In the Minors, my focus was on hitting the corners. There's nothing like the way big-league hitters approach at-bats.
"Maybe I was trying to be a little too fine. Sometimes you'd make a good pitch and they'd foul it off, so I'd try to make a better pitch. For me, that's how things worked. I was trying to make great pitches every time."
Slowey worked on that approach in Rochester and continued to get hitters out with regularity. He had a 1.99 ERA over his final 10 starts with the Red Wings and went at least six innings in eight of those outings. Slowey finished the season with a Minor League-best five complete games. His strikeout rate went down, but that was almost by design as Slowey began to realize he didn't need to make the perfect pitch to get the strikeout every time.
The new approach paid off when he came back to Minnesota in September. Slowey posted a 3.34 ERA in the final month of the season, including a 2.26 mark in his four starts. He walked only two batters over his last 29 2/3 innings, perhaps making a statement that he belongs in the bigs for good in 2008. As much as he loved pitching for Rochester, it's safe to say Slowey wouldn't complain if he never wore a Red Wings uniform again.
"I think that'd be all right with me," he said. "But if you look forward, we have a lot of talented pitchers still. It'll be interesting. Every year, the Twins seem to have an interesting offseason. They'll be doing something."
It's hard to imagine that that "something" won't include Slowey.