Cody Kukuk proved he was ready for a promotion this April when he dominated the South Atlantic League. The Red Sox, impressed by their fourth-ranked left-handed pitching prospect, moved him up to Salem a month later.
Then he endured one of the worst months of his baseball career.
"It was a little tough, but it was nice having Walk [pitching coach Kevin Walker] and our manager sticking by me," Kukuk said. "They told me, 'You're going to get through this. You're a step away from dominating.' It's nice having them in my ear, and I have great teammates that pick you up when you struggle."
The Red Sox's No. 16 prospect has turned things around, with Friday's gem the latest example. He recorded a career-high 10 strikeouts while allowing two hits over six innings Friday night as Class A Advanced Salem blanked Myrtle Beach, 6-0.
"It's very satisfying," Kukuk said, "when you're starting to pitch well and everything comes together."
Kukuk (4-6) allowed only three baserunners, with Edwin Garcia singling and Royce Bolinger drawing a two-out walk in the first. The early threat didn't faze him, though.
"My first inning has been where I've struggled, it's where I've given up a run in my last two starts, so I went into it thinking, 'Stick at it, don't show your frustration, keep plowing away.' And that helped a lot," he said. "Just keep attacking and don't veer from the plan, that's the biggest part right now."
The 21-year-old left-hander struck out the side in the second and worked around Luis Mendez's leadoff single in the third before retiring the final 12 batters he faced. Nate Reed pitched the seventh and eighth before Matty Ott struck out two in the ninth to seal Salem's 10th shutout.
"It felt great. Right from the beginning, [catcher] Carson Blair and I were on the same page," Kukuk said. "I was able to establish the fastball inside, we did that and it opened everything up with the changeup and slider. I think we both had them guessing all game, so it's always good when you and your catcher are on the same page. It's been a lot of hard work."
Kukuk ran up his strikeout total in his final inning when he fanned Chris Garcia, Edwin Garcia and Rangers No. 3 prospect Nick Williams to strike out the side for the second time. The 10 punchouts bested his previous high of nine, which he posted twice last year for Class A Greenville.
"My mind-set, even though it may not be the case, is to pitch at least seven innings. I think that's helped me stay in the game and stay locked in and focused," Kukuk said. "I was thinking I was going out for another inning, so that mind-set has helped me stay in the game."
The southpaw, who lost six consecutive decisions, went 0-3 with a 19.55 ERA in four starts in June. July has treated him a bit better: he's 3-0 with a 1.17 ERA over 23 innings over five outings. He credits Walker, a 37-year-old six-year Major League veteran, for helping get things straightened out.
"He's also a lefty, so that's been nice to have," Kukuk said. "It's really nice seeing all this hard work pay off."
Kukuk was a 2011 seventh-round pick out of Free State High School in Lawrence, Kansas, where he was named the Gatorade and Louisville Slugger Baseball Player of the Year in 2010. He debuted with Boston in 2012, appearing in five Gulf Coast League games before going 4-13 with a 4.63 ERA and 113 strikeouts over 107 innings last year in the South Atlantic League.
"I think for the most part it's been a great year," he said. "I started at Greenville and I was hungry when I got there and threw the ball with conviction every pitch. That earned me the promotion and I struggled in June, but now that's out of the way and I'm moving forward. People say it's how you finish, so I'm looking to keep things rolling."
The left-hander was 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA in five starts with the Drive before moving up to Salem. He said the key has been focusing on his catcher and relying on his teammates.
"More or less, just throw the ball through the glove, not trying to hit spots," he said. "Just throw the ball through the glove and let my defense do what it does, and it's been helping me a lot. And just the mental aspects, he talks to me about how to think to get back on track."
Salem gave Kukuk an early cushion by scoring five times in the bottom of the second as Matt Gedman, Matty Johnson, Carlos Asuaje and Carson Blair delivered RBI singles. Carson Blair had another base hit and scored in the fifth.