Ben Lively has made it a point to keep his transition into pro ball as simple as possible, and it's paid off.
"Lately, I've just been going to the same stuff I used all year in college," Lively said, "keeping the ball down and getting ahead early in the count."
He struck out five over three perfect innings to set the tone in Rookie-level Billings' 9-1 win at Ogden on Sunday. The 21-year-old right-hander has retired 23 consecutive hitters, going back three starts to an Aug. 8 outing against Great Falls.
"Even before I stood on the mound today, I felt really strong," Lively said. "I'm pumped about reducing my walk numbers. That means, obviously, I'm finding the zone a lot."
He was aware that he'd gone several innings since allowing a baserunner, but didn't take note of the details.
"It's hard to realize it when you're only going three or four [innings] in a game. It goes by quick," he said.
He's compiled 43 strikeouts over 34 innings since the Cincinnati Reds drafted him out of the University of Central Florida in the fourth round this year. He kicked off Sunday's start by whiffing the first two Raptors hitters. He also started the second and third innings with a strikeout, and he added another punchout against the last batter he faced.
"I'd gotten into a couple of three-ball counts. I threw pretty decent, but I knew I was probably coming out [after the third]," Lively said. "They only want me throwing 55 pitches, and I knew I was around 45. I really wanted that last guy."
His Aug. 13 outing against Idaho Falls, in which he unfurled four perfect frames, was the only one in which he'd been allowed to go more than three innings.
"I know [the Reds] have a plan," Lively said, admitting to some disappointment. "I know they want me to take it easy -- I threw over 100 innings in college -- but being excited in the games, I always want to go out and throw a few more."
Out of 11 starts this year, Lively has gone unscored upon in seven. He's given up seven runs -- only three of which have been earned.
"Ben's done a tremendous job," said teammate Adam Matthews, who's recently been on his own torrid tear at the plate. "He has a good sense of the strike zone and knows how to pitch to certain guys. He wants to stay out there and give us a chance to win every time."
Matthews has driven in 10 runs over his last three games, although he entered the weekend with a .182 Pioneer League average.
"He's been killing the ball," Lively said. "Him hitting like that really gets the middle of our lineup going. We were messing around with him, saying, 'Where is all this coming from?'"
The 23-year-old outfield prospect has an answer. For most of the season, he wasn't fully landing with his front foot as he swung.
"I finally got to a point in the year where I could feel myself not getting it down when I don't and feel myself getting it down when I do," Matthews said. "Things start paying off when you reach the point that you can feel what you're doing, because it helps the process of changing it."
On Sunday, Matthews went 4-for-4 and missed the cycle by a homer. He scored three runs and knocked in three. In his final at-bat, he led off with a double that bounced off the top of the upper part of the wall in center field.
"Obviously, I knew what was at stake. A couple guys said something. But my main thing was putting a good swing on the ball," he said. "Even if I wasn't going to hit it out, I was going to hit the ball hard. I was feeling relaxed, and I just wanted to keep doing what I've been doing.
"I was pretty close. I came up a little short, though. I hit it just a couple feet off the top of the wall."
The Reds grabbed Matthews out of the University of South Carolina in the 29th round of last year's Draft.