As Fort Wayne's Opening Day starter, it's easy to consider Joe Ross the team's de facto ace.
Whether he attaches that specific label to himself or not, the 19-year-old hasn't shirked away with the responsibility that comes with pitching first in the rotation. Rather than a chore or a burden, the young right-hander embraces his role.
The first-rounder struck out a career-high eight batters -- seven swinging -- and surrendered one hit and one walk over five innings in the Class A Fort Wayne TinCaps' 4-0 rain-shortened win over the visiting Lake County Captains on Thursday.
"It's not that I feel it has to be responsibility, it's that I've put it on myself to set the tone," Ross said. "I'm not pressured from my teammates, I'm just hard on myself. I want to take the lead and set the tone not just for them, but for myself.
"It gives me a lot of confidence, especially with the rough start I had last year. It's a huge confidence booster."
Ross struck out two batters in each of the first three innings before Nellie Rodriguez doubled to center field with two outs in the fourth to break up the no-hit bid. But Ross fannedLeonardo Castillo to strand Rodriguez in scoring position and set the side down in order in the fifth to complete his night.
Of the eight Captains to put the ball in play against Ross, six grounded out.
"I owe a lot of credit to my catcher Dane Phillips," said Ross, who has only pitched deeper than the fifth once in his pro career, in a no-decision against West Michigan on April 4. "We were on the same exact page tonight. Whatever I was thinking -- a righty-righty changeup or a backdoor slider -- he'd already thought it.
"My fastball command was a little bit less than I would have liked, but my changeup and slider combination helped pull the game together for me. The second time through the lineup, just showing them one of the two pitches in an at-bat had to make them guess and not sit back on the fastball."
The Padres' No. 13 prospect bested his previous high of seven strikeouts, set in Eugene's 5-4 win against Spokane last Aug. 28 in his final outing of the season.
It marked the second consecutive strong outing for Ross, who also allowed two baserunners over the minimum in five scoreless frames in Great Lakes on Opening Day.
Across the two starts, the right-hander has an unblemished 0.00 ERA, a 0.40 WHIP and 12 strikeouts with only two walks over 10 innings.
Selected by San Diego 25th overall in the 2011 Draft, Ross (2-0) has adjusted well to his second time in the Midwest League.
The California native made six starts for Fort Wayne last year, but he went 0-2 with a 6.26 ERA and 21 runs over 27 2/3 innings before missing around 10 weeks with shoulder tendinitis.
Thursday's start also gave Ross a sense of redemption and closure. He made his full-season debut against the Captains last April, but things didn't turn out nearly as well. He only lasted 1 1/3 innings after being tagged for seven runs on seven hits and three walks.
"It was a mental thing, I was trying to be too perfect," he said. "The level I was at was never in question. I would just say it was first full-season jitters. That and being too fine."
Phillips was 2-for-3 with a double and two runs scored and first baseman Luis Tejada plated his first two runs of the season in the winning effort.
Lake County starter Luis DeJesus (0-1) gave up four runs -- all unearned -- on five hits over five innings. The game was called in the middle of the sixth following a 30-minute delay.