John Lamb was hoping this season would be his first step off the ride, only to find out he was still on it.
After missing most of the 2011 and 2012 seasons following Tommy John surgery and left-foot tendinitis that delayed his return, he had struggled in his first seven starts with Class A Advanced Wilmington, going 2-4 with a 6.35 ERA in that span.
"It's been a real mental and physical roller coaster," he said. "Being the competitive guy that I am and knowing that I want to be the best, I want to show as much as I can that I can be one of the better pitchers in this organization. That's not what's been the case so far here. It's all about getting back to the grind of the game post-surgery, and this is my first time going through that, so I haven't really been sure how I'm supposed to feel at certain points."
Lamb's outing on Thursday went a long way in smoothing out his ride this season.
The Royals' No. 5 prospect allowed just three hits and one walk and struck out eight over seven scoreless innings to lead the Blue Rocks to a 5-1 win over Lynchburg.
The occasion marked the 22-year-old southpaw's first scoreless start of the season and was his longest outing since going 7 1/3 innings for Wilmington on July 21, 2010. The eight strikeouts also matched a season best.
After allowing a two-out double to Shawn McGill in the first, Lamb (3-4) retired seven Hillcats in a row -- four via the K -- to cruise through the first three innings. It was at that point that he realized Thursday's outing might be a little different than his previous seven.
"I was getting ahead of pitchers pretty well in those first few innings, and that helped me loosen up a little bit," he said. "Everything else just kind of fell into place from there. As I was attacking guys, you could see them jump out at a lot, so you know the stuff was working at that point."
When Lamb's afternoon was done, he hadn't allowed more than one Lynchburg baserunner to reach in any given inning, and of those who did reach, McGill was the only one to enter scoring position successfully.
The string of seven zeros broke a streak of three consecutive starts with five earned runs allowed or more and lowered the left-hander's ERA to 5.27. But although the numbers may have been there, Lamb believed he wasn't at his 100 percent best on Thursday.
"Actually, today kind of went the other way," said the native of Southern California. "I felt like things were less constant in terms of my arm, but at the same time, that actually kind of helped me. I knew that wasn't there, so I didn't worry about it as much. I kept my focus more on making quality pitches. … It was kind of a blessing in disguise, I guess."
Still, concerns remain about Lamb's potential effectiveness going forward. His fastball velocity hovered around the mid-80s on Thursday, and that's become the norm for the left-hander who could hit as high as 95 on the radar gun before Tommy John surgery.
"Given all the time I've had, all the work I've put in, I feel like I should be throwing harder," he said. "Everyone in the organization is waiting for it to come back, and I'm just as impatient myself.
"I've looked back into my past, and it feels like I'm doing all the right things. Obviously, you put in your work with the strength and conditioning guys, and I feel strong in all aspects. But I'm throwing the ball, and that's all I can do. It took me a while to get to 95, and now I'm trying to build back to that after more than a year away. It's one of the mental hurdles I have. … I'm just putting my trust in the process right now, and that's the biggest thing I can do."
No. 9 Royals prospect Cheslor Cuthbert went 2-for-4 with a double, two RBIs and a run scored in the Blue Rocks victory. Despite batting just .259 this season, his 13 doubles rank fourth in the Carolina League.