Hendriks’ strong start secures spot in rotation

He's now more than just "the kid with food poisoning."

By Tyler Mason / Foxsportsnorth.com

Liam Hendriks is making his case to be known as more than just “the kid with food poisoning.”

That’s what Twins general manager Terry Ryan called Hendriks earlier this week, as the 23-year-old right-hander missed his first start of the 2012 season due to food poisoning in Baltimore. But Hendriks took the mound Sunday at Target Field against the visiting Texas Rangers and was impressive, giving up just one run (a solo homer) in six innings of work.

Hendriks was in line for the win when he left the game, but reliever Glen Perkins allowed three runs in the eighth inning of Minnesota’s 4-3 loss. While Hendriks didn’t earn the victory, he did pitch well enough to prove that he belongs in the Twins’ rotation.

“He mixed it up, just as advertised,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Hendriks. “He gave us every opportunity to win the ballgame.”

Hendriks’ first start of the year lasted six innings and he scattered seven hits. His one mistake was a pitch he left up in the zone to Mike Napoli, who tattooed it for a solo homer to left field in the fifth inning. But for the most part, Hendriks showed off his control, as he didn’t walk any of the 23 batters he faced. Hendriks did pick up four strikeouts along the way, fanning Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz (twice) and Elvis Andrus.

“With this team being real aggressive with the fastball, Liam was able to slow them down a little bit and keep them off balance,” Twins catcher Joe Mauer said. “I thought he did a great job of mixing it up with breaking pitches, fastballs, changing speeds. That’s a tough lineup to go through a couple times. He gave us a great chance to win.”

Since he missed his first start and was hospitalized with a few days with food poisoning, Hendriks was on a pitch count for Sunday’s outing. He finished the game after 84 pitches (57 strikes).

Afterward, Hendriks admitted to feeling a bit fatigued in the later innings but expects to be closer to the 95-100-pitch mark when he makes his next start.

“More than anything else, he got right about where (pitching coach Rick Anderson) wanted him to go, somewhere around 80-85 pitches,” Gardenhire said. “He said he was a little bit worn out, got a little tired out there, which is expected after you miss 12 days or whatever it is he missed.”

Hendriks began the season in Minnesota’s rotation because Jason Marquis is in Double-A New Britain to build up his arm strength after missing time for a family emergency during spring. Right-hander Scott Baker will miss the season with elbow surgery, meaning there was a vacant spot in the Twins’ rotation. Hendriks and right-hander Anthony Swarzak appeared to be the two obvious candidates.

Hendriks had a solid spring, going 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA in eight games (four starts). In 25 1/3 innings of Grapefruit League action, Hendriks struck out 17 batters and walked six. His strong spring secured him a spot on the 25-man roster out of camp.

Now, Baker’s injury has opened the door for Hendriks to be a starter. Gardenhire confirmed Sunday that the final rotation spot does indeed belong to Hendriks, the Twins’ 2011 Minor League Player of the Year.

“It hasn’t changed my mindset,” Hendriks said. “I’m going to go out there and do what I need to do and try and keep the team in contention every game. Hopefully we can walk away with some wins.”

Hendriks made his major league debut last season as a September call-up and made four starts in the final month of the year. He was 0-2 with a 6.17 ERA, posting 16 strikeouts and six walks in 23 1/3 innings. But he dominated pretty much every level of the minor leagues, posting sub-3.00 ERAs at Class-A Beloit in 2010 (1.32 ERA), High-A Fort Myers in 2010 (1.93) and New Britain last year (2.70).

Hendriks has also had success at the international level, as he pitched for Team Australia in the World Baseball Classic, appearing out of the bullpen in two games against Mexico.

Also on that Australian team was infielder Luke Hughes, Hendriks’ current Twins teammate who, like Hendriks, hails from Perth. Hughes knew several years ago that Hendriks had the same fearless mentality that he showed Sunday against a fear-inducing Rangers lineup.

“That’s how he’s always been,” Hughes said of Hendriks’ demeanor. “I saw back in the World Baseball Classic in 2009, I think he pitched against (Mexico) and did the same thing there. That’s when I knew. I was like, ‘He doesn’t really care who’s out there.’

“He just goes about his business, throws strikes and hopefully throws good quality pitches. He’s been getting outs. It’s definitely fun to watch.”

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