Northwestern might be known for its smarts, than its baseball talent. Zach Morton may change that if he keeps pitching like he did Sunday afternoon.
Morton struck out three in six hitless innings to pick up his first win in the short-season Class A ValleyCats' 7-0 shutout of the Muckdogs at Dwyer Stadium.
"It felt pretty cool, I didn't really expect to go more than five innings, but my pitch count was pretty low," the Astros right-handed prospect said. "I just wanted to keep throwing strikes and not give up the lead, they came back on us late last night."
The 23-year-old, who celebrated his birthday Friday with family, has been dominant in his first taste of pro ball. In 17 1/3 innings, the 6-foot-1 hurler has allowed four runs -- two earned -- on seven hits, fanning twelve and walking five. His ERA stands at 1.04 and his opponents' average against is .123.
As a starter, Morton has allowed one hit in 10 shutout innings.
"I'm kind of used to being a starter in college. You can get your whole routine set up before the game, on your time at your pace," he said. "In the bullpen you can't really long toss and you may not know which inning you're going to come in, so it's just that you can control your pace and everything more comfortably [as a starter]. Everyone on our team is relieving at some point though, so I hope to get better at that."
Ground balls have been a major source of success for the native of Evanston, Ill. He has a 4.71 groundout-to-flyout ratio for Tri-City.
"That's kind of what I thought I could do best, I got a lot of ground balls in college," Morton said. "Some of them get through obviously, but I like it if you can get ground balls to limit people to single base hits, and with runners on, try to get double plays and try to get that first out quick in the inning."
The 2013 32nd-round pick had thrown four innings each in his two previous appearances and was expecting to throw a maximum of five innings Sunday.
"I was planning on going five and having the other starter [Randall Fant] go for the last four, but my pitching coach [Doug White] asked me if I wanted to go out there for the sixth and I was like, 'Definitely,'" Morton said.
The Northwestern alumnus, who graduated with a degree in economics, was a two-way player in college. He earned Second Team All-Big Ten Conference honors as a senior after ranking 11th in the conference with a 2.86 ERA and leading his team with 31 RBIs.
"[I miss hitting] a little bit, but the hitters I've seen here are so good and work so hard that I only miss taking batting practice. Facing these other guys at this level is a little different," Morton said.
The former second baseman believes his experience in the batter's box can help him as a pro.
"I kind of have a little sense of what you're expecting, what you look for and your approach as a hitter," he said. "That definitely helps as a pitcher."
Fant earned his first save by allowing four hits and fanning four in three innings. Second baseman Anthony Kemp had two hits and scored three times and designated hitter Michael Martinez singled twice and drove in a pair of runs.