After his start was done Thursday night, Mark Appel turned to a teammate and said he felt like himself again, for perhaps the first time ever in his professional career. If that's the case, it'll be music to the Astros' ears.
Houston's No. 2 prospect allowed two runs on five hits, striking out seven without issuing a walk, over six innings for just his second victory of the season as Class A Advanced Lancaster downed Stockton, 5-2.
The top pick in the 2013 Draft, Appel (2-5) entered his start with an ERA of 10.80, an opponents' batting average of .392 and was coming off the heels of a loss vs, Visalia on July 16 in which which he allowed seven runs on seven hits in 1 2/3 innings. He also came in armed with a minor mechanical tweak that paid major dividends.
"Some of the pitching coaches and I, we made a minor adjustment in the bullpen that I was able to carry over," Appel said. "It wasn't anything serious. I'm not saying that's the cure for this season, but it's something that I feel comfortable with. It's something that I can continue to work on. I was able to get a little feedback tonight just from the way that some of the guys from Stockton were taking swings at fastballs that, in the past, were getting hit. The way they would react to some of my offspeed stuff where, I think in the past, they were able to see it a little bit better. The feedback was pretty good."
Appel opened with three straight scoreless innings, just the second time all season he started off that way and the first time since April 10 at Lake Elsinore.
The adjustment ahead of his second victory would appear indiscernible to the average observer, Appel said, but it allows the 6-foot-5 righty an extra "6 to 8 inches in stride length" and a straighter path to the plate. Appel thinks that will help create deception and benefit his offspeed pitches as well.
"When you're feeling comfortable with your mechanics and you're able to locate the pitches that you want better as the game goes on, obviously it does play a factor," he said. "I think it's just a combination of all the work that I've been putting in this season amidst the terrible games, amidst all the struggles and frustration. Finally -- finally -- it's bearing a little bit of fruit."
Lancaster jumped into the lead with three runs in the fourth inning, highlighted by Jon Kemmer's two-run double. Stockton answered with two in the fourth, one on an RBI double by No. 3 Athletics prospect Matt Olson.
Where Appel struggled to stem the tide of opposing offenses late in past starts this season, though, he was resilient against the Ports. The Stanford product responded by pitching around a one-out single and stolen base by Zeke DeVoss in the fifth and retiring the final five batters he faced.
The six innings marked a career high for Appel, and the 23-year-old hopes they signal a turning point in a frustrating first full year in pro ball.
"There have been times this season where I almost felt, 'Man, why am I even here? This is so frustrating. I don't feel like I should be here, but then again, I'm not putting up the numbers that say I should be somewhere else,'" he said. "I felt like I was almost living in the past a little bit, being like, 'I was the first overall pick. Doesn't that mean I should have a little say about where I go?' or whatever it may be. That's definitely not the case. I think I fell into that trap a few times, but realistically, my work has always been consistent, my effort, my attitude."
Just before sitting down to dinner with family and friends after the victory, Appel was eager to relish the moment.
"I'll just remember the feeling that I had walking off the mound in the sixth inning. I struck the first two guys out, got down 3-0 [against Ryon Healy], and just said, 'Here's my best fastball. Try and hit it.' He ended up grounding out on a 3-2 count, but it just felt good. It felt like me again. I'm going to remember that feeling, but I'm not going to take it for granted.
"I think I'm just going to enjoy it for what it is. I don't want to overanalyze it too much. It was a fun game. It reminded me of the joy I have in playing this game and why this game is so much fun."
Roberto Pena and Jack Mayfield contributed an RBI apiece in the final two frames.
No. 16 A's prospect Seth Streich (9-6) was charged with three runs -- one earned -- on five hits over six innings for the Ports. He struck out four without issuing a walk.