Four years ago, Mark Sappington was a smart high school student with an 85 mph fastball and exactly one college interested in him as a pitcher. Now he's the Los Angeles Angels' No. 9 prospect and the organization's reigning Minor League Pitcher of the Month.
The 22-year-old right-hander has started the season with a 5-0 record and 2.05 ERA for the Inland Empire 66ers, who have won all nine games Sappington has started.
"I'm doing what I need to be successful," said Sappington, adding, "I almost played football instead of baseball in college."
A native of Peculiar, Mo., the 6-foot-5 Sappington attended Division II Rockhurst College in Kansas City and was a star in academics -- posting a 3.75 GPA with a double major in Economics and Financial Accounting -- while his pitching skills were a work-in-progress.
"The summer before my junior year, [Rockhurst coach] Daryl Cronk taught me the slider," said Sappington, who said he hasn't thrown a curveball in a year.
He's gained 35 pounds since high school, tipping the scales at 225, and about 10 mph on his fastball, which now sits between 92-95 and can reach as high as 98. With this increase in velocity, Sappington became the highest Draft pick taken out of Rockhurst when the Angels selected in the fifth round in 2012.
"We have competitive bullpen drills, and there isn't too much sideways rotation in his body when he delivers the ball," said 66ers pitching coach Brandon Emmanuel. "He does what he needs to do to improve and isn't caught up in the 'I'm in professional baseball' attitude."
To complement his fastball and slider, teammate Mike Morin showed him a changeup prior to this season. Morin, who is also from the Kansas City area, has been promoted from setup man to closer for the 66ers and has recorded four saves since May 12.
"It isn't so much that he taught me the changeup as he showed me the whole mentality of when to throw the change and how to go after hitters," Sappington said.
Opposing batters are hitting .204 against Sappington, who has 49 strikeouts and 20 walks in 52 2/3 innings prior to last night's scheduled start. He has yielded only 39 hits and three home runs, and he gets most of his outs on ground balls, with a 1.74 grounder-to-fly-ball ratio.
"He's not a thrower -- he's a pitcher," said 66ers manager Bill Haselman, who played 13 years in the Majors at catcher. "He throws downhill, which means everything ends up right around a batter's knees."
Featherston finds shelter: Modesto infielder Taylor Featherston had an impressive string against Lake Elsinore in a four-game series at John Thurman Field this past week. Colorado's fifth-round selection in the 2011 Draft was 7-for-17 and drove in 11 runs. Featherston hit a grand slam Friday in a five-RBI performance that matched his production against the Storm two days earlier. The former Texas Christian standout is hitting .294 with Modesto, which took three of four games over Lake Elsinore.
Flip a coin: In his last six games through Sunday, Chris Taylor had 12 hits in 24 at-bats for the High Desert Mavericks. The University of Virginia product had five multi-hit games in that string, helping lift his average to .347 on the season.
King of K: Drew Granier of the Stockton Ports is leading the California League with 63 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings. The right-hander from Thibodaux, La., has a 4-3 record and 2.28 ERA. He was charged with a loss Friday, despite allowing only one run on four hits over 6 1/3 innings against Bakersfield. Jon Moscot, who was 0-6 entering the game for the Blaze, got the win after giving up only one hit over six innings.
On the mend: Angels pitchers Kevin Jepsen and Sean Burnett joined Inland Empire on rehab during the past week. Jepsen, out since April 11 while recovering from a strained lat, tossed a perfect inning for the 66ers on May 19. Burnett, a 30-year-old lefty, also made one appearance for Inland Empire and yielded a solo homer in one inning of work. Out since April 26, Burnett has a 1.04 ERA with the Angels in 11 appearances.