Ryan Merritt came down off the mound after finishing off his third career shutout and was on top of the world.
"I think it gives me confidence that I can do it at the big league level and I can compete up there with those guys," the Indians' No. 27 prospect said.
Merritt (3-2) scattered four hits and a walk while striking out six over the full nine innings as Triple-A Columbus blanked Lehigh Valley, 2-0, at Huntington Park on Monday.
"I felt pretty good from the get-go," the southpaw said. "I was mixing my pitches well. Me and my catcher [Adam Moore] got off to a good start. He knew what I wanted to do, just get early outs and throw my pitches where I want them."
The 2011 16th-round pick struck out the side in the first inning and retired the first 12 batters in order before Tommy Joseph led off the fifth with a single. As he kept setting down IronPigs, Merritt began to sense the outing might turn into one of his best starts.
"I wasn't thinking about [going the distance], but I was confident in myself that I was going to go deep in the game and give my team the best chance I could to win," the 24-year-old said.
Merritt's plus command allowed him to pitch efficiently by inducing weak contact early and often. That, in turn, helped him finish off the gem in less than two hours and with only 97 pitches. When he got the call for the ninth, there was no hesitation.
"I was feeling strong for the most part," the Texas native said. "I definitely wasn't too tired. I still felt confident that I could get guys out. It was just whether or not I could keep throwing my pitches with conviction where I wanted them.
"I got them out for eight innings, so I just told myself, 'Go out there and keep doing what you're doing, and it's going to work out.'"
The Iron Pigs pushed back in the eighth with back-to-back one-out singles by Alfredo Marte and Angelys Nina. But then Merritt got the final two outs of the inning before retiring Cam Perkins, fanning third-ranked Philadelphia prospect Nick Williams and getting Joseph to pop out to short to seal the shutout.
The 6-foot, 180-pound hurler dropped his ERA to 2.54, a marked improvement over his 4.20 mark through five starts last season with the Clippers. The experience may give Merritt a chance to prove he can compete in the big leagues before the season is done.
"You can't fall behind on hitters. And you can't make many mistakes," he said, referring to what he's learned the last few weeks. "They're going to capitalize when you make mistakes. You've got to pound the zone and keep them off balance. It [has been] a good learning experience for me."
Robbie Grossman went 2-for-3 and smacked a solo homer off Bobby LaFromboise (1-3) in the fifth.
Joseph, who leads the International League with a .386 average, went 1-for-4 against Merritt.