Mark Alexander never expected to win MiLB.com's Double-A Relief Pitcher Award, even with a 3-2 record, 26 saves and an 0.96 ERA in 40 games with the Jacksonville Suns of the Southern League.
Considering his background, he hardly thought he'd play professional baseball. A series of events in the 25-year-old's life made winning awards an afterthought.
First came his high school graduation. While most kids were celebrating the occasion by driving new cars, Alexander was getting Tommy John surgery.
Then came college. He pitched only 31 1/3 innings in his first three seasons at the University of Missouri due to his injured elbow. By that point, Alexander was preparing for a future as an accountant rather than counting on a baseball career.
It wasn't until his senior year that Alexander blossomed, prompting the Dodgers to take him with a 20th-round draft pick in 2004.
"I never really envisioned myself, going out there and having the type of season to merit a couple of honors," he said. "I was honored with the (Dodgers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year) and then this, I just go out there and focus on my job. It seems like it's too good to be true in a short amount of time. I feel like I've almost come out of nowhere."
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound right-hander succeeded by being a student of the game and staying prepared. He took extra fielding practice and, in the spirit of an accountant, kept a book on opposing batters.
"I'm not going to be the most talented pitcher on any staff or any given day, but I can prepare more than anyone else, do the little things to work a little harder, and maybe just want it a little more," Alexander said.
He racked up six saves and two wins in the opening four weeks of the season and didn't give up an earned run in his first 12 appearances, spanning 14 2/3 innings, for the playoff-bound Suns.
"I started having some success early and everything just kind of snowballed," Alexander said. "I believe the majority of baseball is all in our heads. It's totally a mental game.
"After a while, I started believing in myself. I always believe in myself but after a while, you get that confidence even more. And every time you step on that mound, you feel like this guy can't hit me no matter what pitch I throw. And then your teammates behind you start feeling that, you're kind of feeding off of them. Then batters started believing that too."
Alexander grew stronger as the season progressed. He didn't give up a run from May 21-Sept. 1, hurling 26 1/3 scoreless frames and picking up 20 saves over that 23-game stretch.
The home crowd got behind Alexander too, urging him to bring the heat in an early-season game against Hunstville.
"It was the biggest crowd of the summer at the time," Alexander said. "Normally I'm a slider pitcher. With two strikes, I really wanted to throw my slider but the crowd really got into it. It was the loudest I'd heard a stadium at any point in my career. I kind of got wrapped up all in it. I decided to throw a fastball, didn't care where it was, but I was going to will that to be the last pitch of the game. And sure enough, it was when I struck him out."
Alexander earned a brief callup to Triple-A Las Vegas, where he went 2-1 with a 3.14 ERA in 12 outings from July 17-Aug. 20. He returned to Jacksonville for the rest of the regular season and took part in the Suns' playoff run.
With the offseason well underway, Alexander has had a chance to savor his dream season. For the first time in years, his dream of playing in the Majors is alive and well, even if he never expected it.
"Five years ago, that dream had started to fade away a bit," Alexander said. "But it's starting to come back now. I couldn't even imagine what it would be like to pitch in the Majors. I guess I could imagine, but it would be a lifelong dream to just pitch one inning in the big leagues."
Eric Justic is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.