On April 8, Modesto's Brandon Hynick faced the Visalia Oaks in his first start of the season and hurled six strong innings in the Nuts' 3-2 win.
During that Sunday matinee in Modesto, Hynick yielded two unearned runs on five hits and struck out six without walking a batter. The 22-year-old right-hander's performance outpitched his Oaks' counterpart, who surrendered two runs on four hits and fanned four in six frames.
No big deal, right? After all, Hynick -- MiLB.com's Class A Advanced Starting Pitcher of the Year -- outdueled many of the pitchers he faced this season en route to a 16-5 record and 2.58 ERA.
True. But only one of his vanquished foes was a grizzled 6-foot-10 southpaw named Randy Johnson. The 43-year-old was making a rehab start for the Oaks as he recovered from offseason back surgery.
"It was a tough situation, but I just kept telling myself to focus on the task at hand," Hynick recalled. "Once I got on the mound, I didn't have to think about him at all. And when I was on the bench, I had the chance to watch him pitch and just take it all in.
"Afterwards, I told myself, 'If I can pitch well against Randy Johnson, I can pitch well against anybody.' That start really set the tone for the season."
Whether or not he was spurred on by his proximity to Major League greatness, Hynick's solid debut was the first of five straight starts -- spanning 32 innings -- in which he did not allow an earned run. The Ohio native went 8-0 with a 1.43 ERA and two complete games in his first 10 outings, striking out 51 batters and walking six.
In short, Hynick was on fire. And his success was all the more remarkable considering he was in his first full season as a pro and competing in a league known as hitter-friendly.
"Right from the start, I was excited to be playing at Class A Advanced and in the California League," said Hynick, the 2006 Pioneer League Pitcher of the Year. "I had confidence in myself and in the decisions made by the Rockies' organization. I knew they wouldn't send me somewhere if they didn't think I could succeed."
Hynick's blistering start to the season gave him the type of numbers that are virtually impossible to sustain over the course of a season. There was an inevitable cooling-off period as the 2006 first-round pick suffered his first loss on June 7. That marked the first of five consecutive starts in which he surrendered at least three runs.
"It was weird because there were a couple rough outings where I couldn't figure out the difference between them and when I was going real well," he said. "All I ever tried to do was focus on my next start. It's hard to set goals over the course of a full season, you just have to take it game by game.
"I think that was one of the most important things for me this year, just learning how to deal with a full season. I took notes on the hitters every game, which helped a lot. I'd make adjustments to them, and then they'd adjust to that and so on. Also, I really learned the importance of pitching inside, where hitters can't get extended and knock one out of the park. I really struggled when I tried to pitch away, because most of the time the hitter would end up sticking his bat out and driving the ball somewhere."
Hynick finished the season nearly as strong as he started it, going 7-3 with a 2.91 ERA over his final 12 outings. His Nuts earned a second-half Wild Card birth in the North Division but got swept by the Oaks in the first round of the playoffs. Hynick took the loss in Game 1 after yielding three unearned runs over eight innings.
"That was a disappointing end to the season because I thought our chances were pretty good," he said. "There weren't too many runs scored in the series and unfortunately, we caught them on a hot streak. I was upset the season was over because I just wanted to keep going out there."
For now, though, Hynick's arm is getting a much-needed rest. He is spending the offseason taking classes at Birmingham Southern College, where he is two semesters away from earning a bachelor's degree.
"My mom was a teacher for 28 years," said Hynick, who is majoring in math. "So, no matter what, I just have to get that degree."