Quad Cities' Mark Appel, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 Draft, walked out of the visitors' clubhouse at Fort Wayne's Parkview Field and leaned against the padded green rail in front of the dugout.
Appel soaked in the downtown skyline view beyond center field on a sweltering 90-degree afternoon. After a brief conversation with Houston Astros Minor League pitching instructor Dyer Miller, Appel jogged down the red clay track to the bullpen and started his stretching exercises. His day at the ballpark was just starting. Soon, there would be long toss, and throwing off the mound.
Appel's day really began when he boarded a bus in Davenport, Iowa, at 5 a.m. A six-hour ride became a seven-hour ride after mechanical issues caused an unplanned one-hour stop. He wouldn't be throwing down his travel bag at the hotel until after midnight.
"The grind is a little bit different than college," said Appel, a 6-foot-5 right-hander who has been anointed as a hometown hero for Houston. "In pro ball, you're basically playing a game every day. In college, you'll have two, three, maybe four days off during the week. I'm still getting acclimated to the throwing program.
"In college, we have the grind of the academics that you don't have in pro ball. Going to class every day, doing your homework, study sessions, tutoring -- you don't have that. It can really wear on you. It's more of a mental wear than a physical wear. That's the biggest thing that I've been getting accustomed to is playing every day, but it's become second nature."
Appel was the Draft's top prize after a stellar season with Stanford in which he went 10-4 with a 2.12 ERA. Armed with a mid-90's fastball and a plus changeup and a plus slider, Appel struck out 130 and walked only 23 in 106 innings in his final collegiate season. He was also named the Pac 12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year and signed for $6.35 million, which is less than the maximum $7,790,400 for the No. 1 slot. He turned down $3.8 million from Pittsburgh, who took him at No. 8 last year, to return to Stanford and earn his degree.
"Mark is a prototypical front-of-the-line starter," said Houston director of player development Quinton McCracken. "He has poise, he has a Stanford pedigree, which doesn't hurt, his arm is outstanding. ... He was able to perform at a high level at a great institution in a great conference, and he did it consistently over the long haul. ... If you're looking for a front-of-the-line starter, you check all the boxes with him."
Houston started off Appel in Class A Short-Season Tri-City of the New York-Penn League and, after two games, he was sent to the Midwest League and Quad Cities. Appel, who has been limited to four innings an outing, is expected to pitch for another 40 innings this season and will probably end his debut campaign at Double-A Corpus Christi.
"I've had a chance to meet a bunch of guys in Quad Cities now and build relationships," Appel said. "I'm enjoying the time I have here now. I don't mind going around and seeing all of the affiliates, versus going straight to Double-A. The goal in mind is being a Major League pitcher for as long as possible. As long as I'm working toward that goal in this short time I have for the rest of the season, I'll be happy."
McCracken said that the Astros are trying to keep Appel's first summer of pro ball simple.
"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel," McCracken said. "Of course, we're going to be very conservative with him and just let him get acclimated to pro ball. He has a lot of innings under his belt, pitching collegiately at a high-profile institution. We're going to monitor his innings."
Appel said that facing limits has been challenging to his warrior mentality.
"It's a little contrary to my nature," Appel said. "I've always wanted to keep on going, but I understand that my goal isn't to have a great Minor League season this year. Obviously, I want to, but my goal is to be a Major League pitcher for a very long time. There are some sacrifices that you're going to have to make in order to achieve that goal.
"Throwing 106 innings in college… I don't think the Astros want me to come out here and throw another 100 innings. It doesn't make sense. I'm using this time to work on some things that I needed to work on on the field but also to acclimate myself to the Astros organization, how it's run, to learning how to pitch every fifth day, to really understanding the differences between college baseball and professional baseball."
River Bandits manager Omar Lopez said that Appel has been a model citizen.
"Mark is such a humble guy," Lopez said. "He's just a great kid and has a smile on his face every day. His work ethic is above-average. He's very devout -- he reads the Bible every day. You can see he lives that."
Dry spell: Fort Wayne's starting rotation features four first-round picks: Zach Eflin, Max Fried, Joe Ross and Walker Weickel. Despite the talent, the TinCaps went through a recent stretch of 13 games in which no starter picked up a victory. They ended that stretch with a victory by Ross, who won his first game since April 25, a span of 11 starts.
Turnstile moment: Kane County is expecting the 10 millionth fan in franchise history to pass through the turnstiles this Saturday. The Cougars, a Chicago Cubs affiliate, will be the first Class A team in Minor League Baseball history to reach 10 million fans.
Great Scott: Great Lakes right-handed pitcher Scott Griggs set a Loons franchise record for consecutive scoreless innings with a streak of 19 1/3 innings. His streak topped the previous franchise record of 18 1/3, set by Elisaul Pimentel in 2010.