Danny Hultzen didn't have a great introduction to Triple-A ball. He's doing a better job with his second impression.
The Mariners' No. 2 prospect allowed two runs on three hits and two walks over six innings Friday night in the Tacoma Rainiers' 4-2 triumph over the Fresno Grizzlies at Cheney Stadium.
After going 1-4 with a 5.92 ERA in 12 Pacific Coast League starts last season, Hultzen is 3-1 with a 2.78 ERA through his first four outings this year.
It wasn't exactly easy for the 23-year-old left-hander to reach those marks on Friday, however. He walked Gary Brown on four pitches to start the game, then allowed the Giants' No. 2 prospect to steal second and score on a single by Brett Pill. In the second, he surrendered a one-out triple to Chris Dominguez, who came home on Jackson Williams' groundout.
"Nah, I didn't quite have my good stuff early," said Hultzen, the second overall pick in the 2011 Draft. "I had to work to get through the first couple innings but settled down after that. It doesn't happen very often where I just know it's not all there. It's actually the toughest part of pitching when you know you're not at your best, but you battle through it and do your best to get through it."
The University of Virginia product did just that over his final four innings, yielding one hit and one walk and keeping both runners out of scoring position.
After Friday's performance, the biggest part of the Hultzen's turnaround has been a marked improvement in control.
In 12 outings with Tacoma last season, Hultzen walked batters at a pace of 8.0 per nine innings. (That ratio was a relatively high 3.8 at Double-A Jackson, where he was 8-3 with a 1.19 ERA in 13 starts.) All in all, the southpaw didn't have a single outing with the Rainiers in which he didn't walk at least two batters a year ago.
After issuing two free passes on Friday -- his highest total though four starts in 2013 -- that walks per nine inning mark rests at 2.38.
"Yeah, I think I walked everybody and their mother here last season," Hultzen said. "So now I'm really just focusing on throwing strikes and getting that down. Then you move on to throwing quality strikes and so forth to become the best you can be. There's always something to improve on."
With his 2012 struggles seemingly behind him, the Maryland native -- who's likely to make his Major League debut at some point this season -- still looks fondly upon those times and the lessons they provided.
"Last year was obviously tough, but I'm glad it happened," Hultzen said. "This is baseball and you know times like those happen to everybody. Now if it happens a second time, I'll be better prepared to fight through it and know how to dig myself out."
Hultzen nearly had the pitching spotlight stolen by Grizzlies starter Yusmeiro Petit on Friday. The 28-year-old right-hander struck out 13 Rainiers, including the final seven he faced. He finished one shy of the PCL record of eight consecutive punchouts and also just missed the Grizzlies' single-game record of 14, set by Tim Lincecum on April 29, 2007.
"He was awesome," Hultzen said of the Major League veteran. "He had really good command of all of his pitches. A lot of those strikeouts actually came looking, too, because he was painting the corners so well. And nights like that happen when you can be that accurate with each pitch."
Petit (1-2) took the loss, however, after allowing four runs on five hits in six innings. One of those hits was Alex Liddi's three-run homer in the bottom of the first.