Lucas Sims felt the pressure of a nine-game losing streak when he took the mound for Class A Advanced Lynchburg on Friday evening, And after a shaky second inning, he needed a little nudge.
"I wasn't really locked in, I wasn't where I needed to be in that inning," he said. "I was up in the zone. My pitching coach, Derrick Lewis, told me after that inning, 'You need to get locked in, get low in the zone.' That helped me out."
Sims, who said he was on a mission to avoid a big inning, took command and turned in one of his best starts of the young season, allowing one run over six innings for his second win as the Hillcats knocked off Salem, 7-2.
The Braves' top prospect struck out four while holding the Red Sox to four hits and a pair of walks in his sixth start. It was his best outing since he gave up one run on two hits over five frames on April 9 against Potomac.
"I came into my start knowing it's no secret we've been struggling pretty bad," said Sims, the Braves' 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. "But it was important for me to compete and keep my team in the game and keep them off the board and give our team a chance to put some runs up."
The right-hander, who turns 20 on May 10, struck out Jon Roof to end a perfect first before allowing a run in the second as Reed Gragnani hit a one-out single and came home on Mario Martinez's double to center. Sims (2-3) pitched around an error, two steals and a walk in the third, avoided trouble after a leadoff single in the fourth and pitched a 1-2-3 fifth.
"Fastball in, I had too much of the plate and he got a single and it found a hole," Sims said of Gragnani's hit. "Next guy, I threw a little too much over the plate and he hit a double. It kind of started with my warmups, I kind of rushed it."
Salem tried to manufacture a run in the sixth on a walk, a single and a sacrifice, but Sims struck out Martinez and got Aneury Tavarez to foul out to end the threat and his night.
Selected 21st overall in the 2012 Draft, Sims said he's still working on what many may assume goes without saying: getting through warmup pitches before each inning. On Friday, he battled to stay focused.
"That was more of a concentration thing and I'm trying to learn every day," he said. "Even the little things, like warmup pitches, you can't take those things for granted. So I've learned from it."
Once his coach's instructions sunk in, things went a little more smoothly. The Hillcats did their part, scoring three times in the fourth before adding three in the sixth.
"I think the biggest thing was trying to eliminate the big inning, locking down with runners in scoring position, being able to execute quality pitches, not leave anything over the middle," Sims said. "I'm going after guys and making sure they don't have anything to hit. If they're going to hit anything, it's going to be my pitch."
The Georgia native said he's working on establishing more of his secondary pitches to complement a fastball that has helped him reach No. 56 overall on MLB.com's rankings of the Top 100 Prospects.
"I felt good about the start. Everything was kind of coming together, I'm getting a better feel for my breaking ball," he said. "It's not where I want it to be, but I'm locating my fastball better each outing. It's a process and I'm taking it in stride and learning from each one."
Sims didn't have to endure many lengthy losing streaks last year with Class A Rome -- he went 12-4 with a 2.62 ERA and 134 strikeouts over 116 2/3 innings in the South Atlantic League. Now, failure is another aspect of the game he's learning about.
"When you're on a streak like that, there's no groaning, we've got a really positive group," he said. "It's early in the season. It's early and it's a long season, so every team will got through something like that and, hopefully, today is a step in the right direction."
Sims had seen mixed results until Friday, surrendering at least three runs in four of his previous five outings. All of those starts had come against Frederick and Potomac.
"It's a little different, but I'm facing a lot of the same guys for the most part. I've thrown three starts against Potomac and two against Frederick, so you learn a lot about how to pitch to guys -- and there's a lot to be learn, even when you're not on the mound," he said. "I'm watching guys with more patience, they're going to hit mistakes a little more often and they're going to take pitches that are close and not out of the zone. It forces you to locate all your pitches."