High-A Wilmington has played a ton of one-run ballgames already in 2017 (ten of their first 14) and Thursday night was no different. The Blue Rocks opened up their short four-game homestand against Winston-Salem with a 1-0 victory.
The Blue Rocks scored a run in the bottom of the first on two hits (they finished with just four). But the story of the night was pitching and it all started with AJ Puckett.
He allowed a single to start the game and then a single with two outs in the 2nd inning. From there, he retired 13 of 15 batters (one reached on a walk and one reached via an error) before a single started the seventh. After a sac bunt put a Dash runner into scoring position for just the third time in the game, Puckett got a fly out and induced a ground out to end the inning.
Coming off back-to-back starts of five innings each to start the season, the Blue Rocks coaching staff decided to play it safe and pull Puckett after seven innings (they talked about leaving him in there). “He could have gone longer and it was discussed, but it was the first time he pitched into the seventh inning,” said manager Jamie Quirk after the win. “Now he’s graduated past that and if it happens again, he can go longer. Every pitch in a one-run game like that is stressful and he did his job. It was time for the bullpen to take over and they did it.”
Puckett wanted to stay in, but understood the reasoning. “I wanted to go back out there but it was a pretty good reason why I didn’t go out there. I didn’t go more than five innings in my last two starts. It was a good building block to go seven innings and I can build off that.”
So Puckett made the first inning run stand up, as he was the first Blue Rocks starter to finish seven innings this season. Those seven innings were a career-high, as were his eight strikeouts. He threw 58 of his 82 pitches for strikes.
Was this his best start as a professional (he was drafted last June)? “This year? Yeah. I think I had a couple good ones last year, but so far this season, being my third start, I think it’s so far my best start. I made a couple bad pitches tonight that were hits and something I’ll look back after and look at the video and then move on from there. Always stuff to work on, unless you throw a perfect game, which even then I think you still have stuff to work on. It was a lot of fun out there today and it was nice to get the W.”
Speaking of those “couple of good starts last year”, Puckett walked one and did not allow a hit on August 21st. He lasted five innings and struck out four. In his final start of 2016 (September 3rd), he allowed just two hits over five scoreless innings.
Being a 1-0 game, it was obviously a pitchers’ duel, as Dash starter Aron McRee allowed the unearned run in the first. He allowed just two hits and a walk, while striking out six across six innings. But Puckett didn’t think about besting the opposing pitcher, he just went out there and worried about himself. “I just tried to focus on my game and not the other guy. If you try to compete against the other pitcher, you get out of place. The greatest enemy is yourself when you get out of your own element. I was just trying to work with (Nate) Esposito and the guys played great defense.”
Puckett improved to 2-1 on the season and lowered his ERA to 1.59 (which is only tenth-best in the Carolina League, as four starters, three from Buies Creek, have 0.00 ERAs).
Before Puckett came to Wilmington, he experienced his first spring training, which started with a big league camp invite. “It was a lot of fun. It was nice to go in the big league clubhouse and be around a lot of veteran guys. Kinda talk to some of the guys, just get a feel for the clubhouse, picking their brains a little bit. How the older guys get used to playing long seasons because I was going straight from college into minor league baseball and then to spring training. It’s a different atmosphere. Guys taking care of their bodies a little more and not going a hundred and ten percent all the time like you are in college, trying to win the College World Series. It’s a different feel and I was trying to understand the game a little more. It was nice to go into spring training with some veteran guys.”
Who did you learn the most from? “I didn’t talk to a lot of big name guys. I knew Scott Alexander beforehand. I was working out back at home in Northern California and he was around…It was nice to know a familiar face going in there. I kinda kept to myself, asking here and there a couple questions. Guys on the field were real helpful and engaging. If you had a question, don’t be afraid to ask. They were always there to help you. It’s always nice to have and not be scared of them.”
Being a West Coast guy, what is he looking forward to on the East Coast? “I don’t know. I’m just anxious to be out here, just to play a little bit. I will say, I am going to miss the West Coast weather. It’s a little bit warmer out there. It was nice tonight…But we’ve had some colder nights out here on the East Coast. I don’t have anything to complain about. It’s just fun to go out there and have the season start and play with the guys.”
*You can watch the entire interview below: