Joe Zeller has been at work on his knuckleball for a little over a year. His start on Friday night was the best sign yet the project is on a successful track.
The Cubs prospect tossed six hitless innings -- his only blemish being a hit batter in the first -- and struck out four as the Class A Peoria Chiefs rolled to an 8-1 victory over the visiting Dayton Dragons.
Zeller (1-2) said his mind wasn't so much on the no-hit bid as much as it was on consistently getting through clean innings. He made 20 relief appearances across three levels before moving into the Chiefs' rotation earlier this month.
"I wasn't really thinking about it. I was more trying to execute every pitch and get in the flow of it," he said. "It was fun to do well, not necessarily go for the no-hitter.
"I've been a reliever most of the year, so I hadn't really gotten my pitch count up too high. It would've been nice to see if I could complete it, but I was pretty [far] up there in pitches and it doesn't feel good the next day after throwing 120 pitches. I was just happy to get the win and be able to contribute."
The 2010 28th-round Draft pick first acquired up the knuckler in 2011 at Spring Training. He spent most of last year in the bullpen for short-season Boise as he got his feet wet with the pitch. Zeller posted a 1.95 ERA over 27 2/3 innings with the Hawks, showing strong early returns.
This year, he's pitched pretty much everywhere in the Cubs system, logging 5 2/3 innings with Boise, 32 innings for Class A Advanced Daytona and one inning at Double-A Tennessee. All that work came in relief, however.
In Peoria, he's been able to test the knuckleball as he stretches out.
"I think that it's definitely helpful, as far as getting more innings to improve and getting a bullpen session in between," Zeller said. "I think for me the main thing is it's a greater opportunity to hone my craft, so to speak. I enjoy that aspect and if I can help my team eat up more innings, it's mutually beneficial."
In 16 innings in the Midwest League, the 24-year-old right-hander has a 2.25 ERA, allowing 11 hits and three walks while striking out eight. Combining all four stops, he's got a 2.96 ERA, 40 strikeouts and 16 walks over 54 2/3 innings.
Zeller said he feels like he's starting to adapt to throwing the dancing pitch, working intensively with coaches and, like any good knuckleballer, seeking the advice of 25-year Major League veteran Charlie Hough.
"Charlie Hough was a great help for me. The other coaches have been helpful with the mental side of it," the California native said. "It's been challenging, for sure. You don't feel comfortable sometimes where it seems like I don't know what I'm doing at all out there, throwing up a prayer to home plate and seeing what happens.
"But I definitely feel like I'm improving. It's only my second year and it's gotten a lot better every month, I would say. Hopefully, they continue to be patient with me."
The Chiefs staked Zeller to a 6-0 in the first inning as Paul Hoilman delivered a two-run double and Wes Darvill singled in a pair of runs.
Jonathan Raymond is a contributor to MLB.com.