Opening two postseason series, Justin Thomas of the Inland Empire 66ers dominated California League opponents, earning MiLB.com's Class A Advanced Playoff Performer of the Year Award.
The 22-year-old left-hander struck out 17 batters over 13 scoreless innings as the 66ers won their second championship in four years.
"I think that the first (playoff) game is very key. You want to get more momentum on your side," Thomas said.
While his team was being no-hit through the seventh inning in Game 1 of the South Division Finals, Thomas quieted Lake Elsinore by fanning 10 over six frames. He had faced the Storm about a week earlier during the final series of the regular season and surrendered three runs on five hits with 11 strikeouts over frames in the 11-4 loss.
"I kind of mixed it up then. I threw more off-speed when I was up in the count," Thomas explained, adding that he relied more on fastballs in the playoffs. "I kind of changed up my game."
Thomas allowed five hits and a walk in his second postseason appearance but did not figure in the decision as the 66ers won, 2-1, in 11 innings.
After Inland Empire took its opening-round series in four games, Thomas pitched seven scoreless innings in a 13-0 blanking of the Visalia Oaks in the first game of the Championship Series. He yielded three hits and three walks, hit a batter and fanned seven.
"I hadn't pitched against them yet, and I think that kind of favored me," he said.
Thomas led the league in strikeouts and held opponents to a .182 batting average in the playoffs.
Unlike 2005, Thomas was in the starting rotation throughout the season and said he has improved his changeup and sinking fastball. He began this year in the Midwest League with Wisconsin, where he struck out 51 over 61 innings, before a June promotion to Inland Empire.
A fourth-round pick by the Seattle Mariners in 2005, Thomas tossed his first career complete-game shutout on Aug. 19 and twice recorded a career-high 11 strikeouts. He totaled 111 strikeouts in 17 games with the 66ers.