Mark Appel's regular season might not have started on the right foot, but his Arizona Fall League campaign sure has.
The Astros' second-ranked prospect tossed four one-hit frames and fellow Houston prospect Andrew Aplin drove in a run in the eighth inning to give Salt River a 1-0 victory over Surprise on Tuesday.
"I felt really good. Mostly everything was working that I threw. My slider was probably my best pitch and worked off my fastball well," the 23-year-old said. "I was just trying to make my pitches. (Catcher Tyler Heineman) called a great game. We were really connected and I was able to get a good angle on the fastball."
After going 3-7 with a 6.91 ERA over 18 starts across Class A Advanced and Double-A, the 2013 first overall pick has not allowed a run while striking out eight and walking three through his first seven frames of AFL action. But Appel said his approach has not changed from earlier in the season.
"Some of it was dumb luck, some of it is continued work ethic, some of it is change of scenery. I think one of the hardest things in baseball is to go to the stadium and to enjoy it when you're experiencing a rough patch," he said. "I think my mind is definitely in a good spot (now).
"I feel focused and determined to just work hard and make the pitches and just get better each time out. I think a big part of it is to just go out and have fun."
MLB.com's No. 41 overall prospect struck out six -- including four straight -- while walking two in his second start with the Rafters. But Appel did run into a couple problems with the testing of the pitch clock.
"It's just different -- based on one game and I know it's a small sample size. I don't know how well it'd be received in the big leagues. I got called for two balls because of the clocks," the Stanford product said. "It was only [used in college] when nobody was on. I think that makes a lot of sense, but I think you get into tricky situations when runners are on and they do a false break."
With Surprise's Mallex Smith at first in the first inning after a walk, the Padres outfield prospect faked toward second -- a situation in which Appel normally steps off the rubber, but in this case, the clock ran out and an automated ball was called.
"I don't think the pitch clock saves that much time with runners on. It's very different and very arbitrary," he said. "Now I'm just going to have to lob the ball to the second baseman or the shortstop and get the ball back."
Then in the third inning, Appel's final warmup pitch got past Heineman (Astros) and his subsequent throw down to second base was off the mark. That violated the two-minute, five-second between-innings clock and became another called ball on Appel.
"I think it's interesting and I definitely learned my lesson for the next time up. I'm going to be quicker and do one or two less warmup pitches," the starter said. "I think the between-inning clock, pitchers can definitely get used to it, if they practice enough and change their routine."
After Appel's exit in the fifth, Brian Ellington (Marlins) and Mitch Lambson (Astros) kept the shutout going with a scoreless frame apiece. Miami's Reid Redman (1-0) followed with two one-hit frames while striking out two to pick up the victory and Tyson Perez (Astros) worked around a hit and a walk in the ninth to notch the save.
The Rafters scored the game's lone run in the eighth on a two-out RBI triple by Aplin that drove in Taylor Featherston (Rockies), who had reached on a one-out single.
"I was just looking for a pitch elevated and up in the zone," Aplin said. "The first pitch had good run and sink on it, so I knew the only way I was going to drive something was [looking] up in the zone."
Keith Couch (Red Sox) allowed five hits while striking out two over five shutout frames for Surprise and the Mariners' Stephen Landazuri (1-2) took the loss after allowing a run on two hits while striking out one in one inning.
Kelsie Heneghan is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan.