Blaine Hardy has recorded outs in a handful of first innings and plenty of sevenths, but before Monday night, the six-year Minor League veteran had never done it in both during the same game as a pro.
Making just the 18th start of his career, Hardy spun a gem Monday, holding Gwinnett to just one hit and facing one over the minimum in a complete-game shutout in Toledo's 6-0 victory.
The 26-year-old crushed his previous career high of six innings, mixing in four strikeouts while throwing 68 of his 107 pitches for strikes. The start was the left-hander's seventh this season after working nearly three full seasons exclusively as a relief pitcher -- a role he's filled for most of his professional career up.
"I did not actually expect to go out there for the ninth," he said, adding he believed the 107 pitches were a season high. "I guess with just the one hit, it kind of forces the manager's hand to put you back out there. My arm was a little tired, but they let me go out to get a few more outs, which I appreciate."
Hardy began strong, striking out Atlanta's No. 8 prospect Todd Cunningham and Brandon Boggs in the first inning. He retired the first eight batters he faced before Sean Kazmar drove a single to left field. Kazmar then stole second with Cunningham at the plate, but Hardy induced a flyout to right to end the third.
Kazmar was the last Gwinnett player to reach base as Hardy went on to retire the final 19 batters he faced.
The performance was a highlight in what seemed to be a stalled career for Hardy. The Tigers signed the 26-year-old in April after the Royals released their 2008 22nd-round Draft pick during Spring Training.
Hardy reached Triple-A in just his second full season with the organization, and he made eight starts with Omaha as Kansas City searched high and low to find left-handed starting pitching.
"The Royals were trying to see if I could be in the rotation," he said, "because they were hurting for a lefty starter at that point. It didn't go quite as well as I would've liked back then. They put me back in the bullpen, and I think I put up decent numbers in the 'pen."
After the failed experiment as a starter, Hardy returned to relief pitching and split 2011 and 2012 between the Double-A Texas League and the PCL, collecting 12 saves and posting ERAs of 3.92 in 2011 and 3.46 in 2012.
After signing Hardy this spring, the Tigers sent the 26-year-old to Double-A Erie to begin the season, where he posted a 1.63 ERA in 16 appearances. He struck out 26 and walked 12 over 27 2/3 innings, limiting Eastern League hitters to just one home run.
The organization promoted him to Triple-A in June, and he made his first appearance out of the bullpen June 23. He made five relief outings, conceding two earned runs over 10 1/3 innings, before circumstances led to him making a spot start on July 14 -- his first start in nearly three years.
In that outing against Louisville, he allowed two earned runs on five hits in five frames. He followed that with five one-run, three-hit innings at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and then tossed six shutout frames against Buffalo in his third start. Since then, manager Phil Nevin has kept him in the rotation, even though that meant carrying six starting pitchers for a few weeks.
"When they told me, I was like, 'Wait, What? You want me to start?'" he said. "I had some doubts in my mind from 2010. At the same time, you know, it's obviously a different year, a different team and a different organization. I thought, 'Let's see what we can do.'"
The hurler has been stellar in his seven starts, managing a 2.21 ERA with 33 strikeouts and 12 walks in 40 2/3 innings. He's limited opponents to a .205 batting average in that time.
Hardy said the biggest difference between this year and 2010 is that he now features a different breaking ball. Since his college days -- split between the University of Portland, Bellevue Community College and, lastly, NAIA Lewis-Clark State College -- he had thrown a slider.
The Royals had worked with him to develop a curveball throughout his career, but it wasn't until this spring that the pitch became usable. The left-hander finally ditched the slider in favor of the curve before Kansas City cut him in Spring Training, saying he'd reached the point where the softer breaking ball had become the better pitch.
Hardy thinks the curve has allowed him to be more effective in a starting role.
"The slider is great as a reliever," he said, "but the curve is a much better pitch to use to move a hitter's eyes, and my other two pitches play off it quite well. I think that is the biggest difference."
A transition that began to fill a team need in July has now opened the door for Hardy to prove he's worthy of an eventual callup to the Major Leagues. For now, the 26-year-old is happy to have an expanded role on a Triple-A club.
"They allowed me to have another start and it's just progressed from there," he said. "Now, I think they're going to keep me there the rest of the year."
Detroit's top prospect Nick Castellanos hit a two-run homer in the first inning and Mike Cervenak went 3-for-4 with a run scored.