Mark Hendrickson started against the Royals knowing where he stood with Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella, who didn't mince words when he said, "We need him to pitch better."
And if Hendrickson didn't? Well, the Rays manager made no secret of the fact the left-hander would be out of a job.
A day before making his start, Hendrickson said he looked forward to the challenge, and he proved it by giving the Rays seven innings of shutout baseball before leaving with one out in the eighth, jump-starting a 6-2 Rays victory over the Royals in front of 12,119 at Tropicana Field.
The win gave the Rays their second sweep of the 10-game homestand -- which ended on Sunday -- and the team's third sweep of the season. The Rays took eight out of 10 games against the Orioles, Red Sox and Royals to push their record to 12-5 since the All-Star break.
The Rays improved their home record to 28-28 while establishing a franchise record for best mark during a homestand of 10 or more games.
Hendrickson had lasted just three innings during his previous two starts -- during which he surrendered 11 runs on 11 hits -- and he had lasted more than five innings in just two of his previous six starts. In his July 20 start he made in Boston, Hendrickson lasted just six batters and did not record an out.
Since his best outing of the season -- a 6-2 win over the Yankees May 5 in which he pitched seven innings -- his ERA had jumped to 7.07 after being almost half that following the win over the Yankees.
But Hendrickson had his act together on Sunday.
He did not allow his first hit until there were two outs in the fourth, then he retired the next 10 hitters he faced.
"The preparation I had this week was probably the best it's been," Hendrickson said. "Today was more what I expect of myself. Just focus. ... All you can really do is make pitches."
Hendrickson cited mental preparation rather than physical as the reason for his success. He also shaved his beard to rid himself of any bad karma.
"He went out today and said, 'I want to stay in the rotation,'" Piniella said. "[He] pitched himself a heck of a ballgame. He was more aggressive today. [He] looked like he had better life on the ball. Today, he was getting people out. He looked good without the whiskers."
Hendrickson also extended a trend by Rays pitchers against the Royals during the four-game series that saw Rays pitchers hold Kansas City scoreless in 31 of the series' 36 innings.
"I got on a roll out there, and the offense came through," Hendrickson said.
The Rays pounded out 13 hits to complement Hendrickson's pitching, and the team as a whole appears to be playing its best baseball of the 2005 season.
"What you're finding is a lot of young guys starting to play with confidence," Hendrickson said.
Royals manager Buddy Bell offered compliments about what he saw of the Rays over the weekend.
"We didn't play well at all," Bell said. "It's hard to figure these guys have lost that many games. I like their team -- they have talent. We didn't have anything for [Hendrickson]. He had a good cutter going."
Piniella sounded pleased with his team's successful homestand, saying, "Eight and two -- [you've] got to be pleased with that."
But Piniella was probably most pleased to keep his team intact as the trade deadline passed.
"We have good team chemistry here," Piniella said. "Let's see if we can win as many games as we can and turn our season around. [Let's] see if we can have some fun doing that. These young players are coming along pretty good. From my standpoint, I'm happy we kept our players here."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.