Backed by Willingham, Hendriks earns elusive win

Backed by Willingham, Hendriks earns elusive win

Backed by Willingham, Hendriks earns elusive win
CLEVELAND -- Liam Hendriks waited long enough for this.

Long enough for undesirable statistics and records to become associated with his moniker. Long enough for teammates to grow restless and feel pressured to help his cause. And long enough for him to appreciate the shaving cream filling his eye and adorning his hat following a once-elusive victory.

On Wednesday, the Australian achieved vindication after a 17-start winless drought, pitching the Twins past the Indians, 6-4, at Progressive Field for his first career triumph.

Hendriks hurled seven strong innings in his Major League debut last September, but suffered a tough-luck loss. He neutralized a potent Rangers lineup in his first start of the 2012 campaign, but didn't factor into the decision. Four weeks ago, he dueled Felix Hernandez pitch for pitch, but took the defeat despite tossing a complete-game three-hitter.

Finally, the 23-year-old earned his first big league victory -- and a face full of shaving cream.

"It's not my favorite taste," Hendriks said. "I wouldn't put any on my plate. But it means I did something well, so I wouldn't mind it happening a few more times."

Hendriks' 17-start winless streak to begin his career was tied for the third-longest stretch since 1920. Through 13 outings in 2012, he had compiled an 0-7 record and 6.14 ERA, surrendering 91 hits in 66 innings.

On Wednesday, he looked like a pitcher primed for plenty of future tallies in the win column. Hendriks limited Cleveland to two runs on two hits, allowing just a solo homer in the first to Asdrubal Cabrera and an RBI single in the third to Jason Kipnis.

"He didn't have one big, bad inning," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It's always been something like that where he couldn't finish it off. We've [given] him leads and he wasn't able to finish the ballgame. He stayed away from that tonight. He pitched through it."

Hendriks had a bounty of offensive backing, most of it the product of a stellar night from left fielder Josh Willingham. The 33-year-old slugger, who entertained an offer from the Indians during the offseason before inking a three-year pact with Minnesota, collected four hits, including a 394-foot homer into the left-field bleachers.

Willingham became the first Twins player to club 35 or more homers in a season since Harmon Killebrew belted 41 long balls in 1970. Willingham also drove in four runs to become the second Twins hitter with at least 25 doubles, 35 homers and 110 RBIs in one season. Killebrew accomplished the feat in 1966.

"Being in that kind of company is kind of cool," Willingham said.

Willingham and catcher Joe Mauer delivered consecutive RBI singles in the third to stake the Twins to a brief 2-1 advantage.

Two innings later in a 2-2 game, after Mauer drew a walk, Willingham deposited a Zach McAllister fastball into the barren bleachers perched atop the 19-foot-high wall in left. Minnesota then loaded the bases and tacked on another run on a fielder's choice by rookie catcher Chris Herrmann, who made his first career start behind the plate. The fifth-inning rally knocked out McAllister, who lasted just 4 1/3 frames while giving up four runs on eight hits.

Willingham's RBI single in the sixth provided the Twins with a 6-2 edge.

"He's really been a bright spot this season," Gardenhire said. "He's been out there pretty much every day and has driven the ball for us, gotten big RBIs. Kind of what we hoped for when we signed him."

The Indians didn't threaten until the eighth. By that time, Hendriks had given way to the bullpen. Kipnis and Michael Brantley delivered RBI singles to close Cleveland's deficit to 6-4, but burly southpaw Tyler Robertson, whom Gardenhire calls "Paul Bunyan," struck out Travis Hafner with the tying runs on base.

With the win, the Twins improved to 12-5 against the Indians this season and vaulted past the Tribe and into fourth place in the American League Central.

It has been a trying season for the Twins, who upped their record to 62-87. It has seemed even longer, though, for Hendriks, the native of Perth, Australia, who became the 16th pitcher from his homeland to capture a victory in the Majors.

"It's been a long, long time," he said. "It was fantastic. I'm lost for words. I'm just excited and happy. It's such a great thing."

Neither he nor Gardenhire chose to get complacent with one win, however. The skipper joked that the shaving cream would be replaced by gasoline should Hendriks take another 18 starts to notch his next victory.

With another two weeks left on the regular-season calendar, Hendriks has his eye on increasing his win total by a few.

"Any time it's taken you this long to get one win, it grows on you a little bit," he said. "I've had to keep a positive outlook and just keep going out there and trying my best and not give in at all. It's a great feeling to get that first one, and hopefully I can finish off the season with a couple more."

Zack Meisel is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @zackmeisel. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.