It's been a long and winding road, but Eric Hacker is finally headed in the right direction.
Hacker allowed just one hit and struck out five over six more scoreless innings Saturday as the Tampa Yankees blanked the Lakeland Flying Tigers, 3-0.
Brandon Timm's one-out single in the third was the only blemish on Hacker's line as he evened his record at 1-1 and lowered his miniscule ERA to 1.04. In 26 innings over four starts, he has allowed only 10 hits and a walk while striking out 21. Florida State League opponents are batting just .115 against him.
"I felt good out there tonight. The two-seamer was working for me, but the curve wasn't quite where I'd like it to be. My arm feels better than it's ever felt though," he said.
That last statement is key for the 25year-old right-hander, who missed the entire 2004 season following Tommy John surgery and sat out all of 2006 after undergoing shoulder surgery. He was healthy and productive in 2007, going 13-5 with a 3.64 ERA in 27 games (24 starts) between Tampa, Class A Charleston and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
"It never crossed my mind that I couldn't come back from the injuries," said Hacker, the Yankees' 23rd-round pick in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. "My dad was always a hard-nosed guy staying on top of me with what I was doing. I believe more than 75 percent of this game is mental and I think I'm more mentally tough than anything.
"Baseball's a funny game. I've learned more about the game from rehabbing than from actually playing. You see what hitters do and how guys carry themselves around the field. It's definitely made me a better player and a better teammate."
After spending time at three levels a year ago, the soft-spoken Texas has his eyes on a bigger goal.
"Seeing other guys have success has allowed me to keep my mind on my dreams and goals, which is to pitch in the big leagues," he said. "Right now, the No. 1 goal is to stay healthy."
Mark Melancon followed Hacker and allowed two hits while striking out two in two innings. J.B. Cox worked around a pair of walks in the ninth to notch his first save.
Tampa (8-8) staked Hacker to a quick lead as Damon Sublett tripled in the first and scored on Chris Kunda's single. Sublett added an RBI double in the seventh.
Flying Tigers starter Rick Porcello allowed two runs on four hits and a walk while striking out four over six innings. The 2007 first-round Draft pick is 1-3, despite owning a 1.35 ERA.
Brandon Timm went 2-for-3 for Lakeland.
Steve Conley 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.