It would have to be pretty hard to get Jason Hirsh excited after all he accomplished in 2006.
The Astros pitching prospect started the Futures Game for the U.S. Team, pitched in the Triple-A All-Star Game and won Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year honors after leading the league with a 2.10 ERA and finishing with a 13-2 record. Oh, and he made it to the big leagues, likely ending his Minor League career with nine starts for Houston.
But how would the 6-foot-8 right-hander react when told he was also named the MiLB.com Triple-A Starting Pitcher of the Year?
"Thank you," Hirsh said. "All the accolades I've gotten this year, each one gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Because I know the folks at MiLB.com so well, I'll consider this one the best yet."
Hirsh wrote a journal chronicling his season with Triple-A Round Rock for MiLB.com, and what a season it was. He picked up his second loss on April 27, then didn't lose again until he got called up to the big leagues. That was a stretch that spanned 18 outings and included 12 consecutive wins. From the middle of June through the end of July, he went 46-plus innings without allowing an earned run (he gave up one unearned run).
All of that success, of course, led to the ultimate prize: getting the call to the big leagues. He made his Major League debut on Aug. 12 and finished the season in the Astros' rotation. It was an uneven nine starts, but now that Hirsh is ready to say goodbye to the long road trips and hit-or-miss crowds of the Minors, he realizes getting that taste this past summer trumps just about anything else that happened for him in 2006.
"That's the part that excites me more than any accolade I've received," Hirsh said, "the fact that I could I could not only no longer be in the Minor Leagues but help the big league team succeed in front of thousands of fans. That excites me more than any award I can get. We came within a half-game of making the playoffs."
That might have been the most surprising development of Hirsh's season. When he got called up, it seemed likely he'd be doing so to play out the string in a disappointing year for Houston. But the Astros started playing well, the Cardinals started falling apart and Hirsh found himself in the middle of a playoff race in his first go-round.
Reliever Dan Wheeler, the self-appointed "bully" on the Astros pitching staff, drove home just how incredible the experience was at the end of the season, after Houston fell just short.
"At the very end, he shook our hands and said, 'Now you know what it's like, now you know what you're here to play for,'" Hirsh recalled. "Now I feel like I'm part of the team. I look forward to contributing more next year."
To Hirsh, it's finding a level of consistency that will enable him to do that full-time in Houston in 2007. He never found the rhythm that carried him through the season in Round Rock once he got up. He's ready to take the ups and downs from his nine-start stint in 2006 and use them to show fans in Houston what he's truly capable of doing.
"Everything that happened to me last year was all confidence-building," Hirsh said. "Even the games when I got lit up, they are all learning experiences and went to building my confidence. I know what I did wrong there and if I can correct those things, I'm going to be a better pitcher.
"The pitcher in Round Rock is the pitcher they should be seeing. I'm going to try to bring that to the table next year."