Pitching in a hitter-friendly league is not an inviting proposition. But Bakersfield's Michael Kirkman hasn't faced much resistance while mowing through the California League this season.
The former fifth-round pick made his best start to date Tuesday, striking out 11 over seven scoreless innings as the Blaze defeated the Stockton Ports, 9-5.
"I had my location tonight with my fastball, and that always helps," said Kirkman, who improved to 4-1 while lowering his ERA to 2.06. "The slider was good and my curveball was actually very good, too. Of course, the defense had some good plays behind me to get me out of it."
To tame the sluggers in a league known for scores that often resemble football games, Kirkman came into the year with a simple plan: Just throw strikes.
"So far, I've pretty much done that," he said.
It sounds obvious, but the more he talks, the more sense it makes. He is focused on keeping the ball down and over the plate. If he can get ahead of hitters, their opportunities to poke the ball out of the park are greatly reduced.
"It's hard for them to hit the ball hard, see it well," he said.
Since allowing one hit over seven innings in his season debut on April 12, Kirkman has been the picture of consistency. He has thrown no fewer than five innings each time he's taken the mound and has yet to allow more than three earned runs.
Against the Ports, he struck out six over the first three hitless innings and left after giving up three hits, an accomplishment he said is more a product of the defense behind him.
The 6-foot-4, 195-pound left-hander said his success this season is based on the confidence he built last year. He spent most of 2008 with Clinton in the Midwest League where he was 4-3 in 15 appearances.
It was the first season since he was selected in the fifth round of the 2005 Draft that he really felt comfortable on the mound.
"The last few years, with the exception of last year, were really tough," Kirkman admitted. "Last year, I kind of got on the right track, started getting the ball over the plate, and it just carried over to this year."
As the temperature climbs in California, Kirkman will be tested by the elements and opposing hitters. With the cozy dimensions at Sam Lynn Ballpark, batters are tempted to swing for the fences, but the ball doesn't carry well. That's something he learned quickly and has been able to use to his advantage.
"For me and a few other pitchers, it's been a very good pitchers' park," Kirkman said. "The ball doesn't fly really well."
Eight appearances into his 2009 season, Kirkman is experiencing a breakthrough campaign. To keep it going, all he plans to do is continue throwing strikes.
"Everything is just working for me right now," he said. "My defense is behind me making spectacular plays every game, and that always helps keep my confidence up."