While Grayson Long was warming up before his start Tuesday, Class A Advanced 66ers pitching coach Michael Wuertz could tell this game was going to be different for his right-hander.
"I felt like even from in the bullpen prior to the game, he had his good stuff," the coach said. "He had a different demeanor."
The Angels' No. 6 prospect used that new sense of confidence to shake off an 0-2 start and deliver his best outing of the season. Long allowed two hits and a walk while striking out seven over five frames as Inland Empire edged Lake Elsinore, 3-2, in 11 innings at San Manuel Stadium.
"Just had a different mind-set [on Tuesday], you could see it in his eye that he was hungry for success," Wuertz said. "The first couple outings were a little rough, but having that Texas demeanor that he has, he went out there and the showed what he's capable of doing. It's a big, huge positive outing for him."
Early runs proved to be a big issue in Long's previous outings. All eight of the ones the 22-year-old allowed in his first two starts came in the first two innings. But Tuesday, Long retired the first nine Storm batters he faced.
"Maybe [the problem was with] focus a little bit, trying to feel his way around the strike zone a little early in games," the pitching coach said. "He just went out there from pitch one, attacked the zone and he did a good job not only attacking it, but also using his fastball in different quadrants of the strike zone. He was able to execute his slider."
Long got into a little jam in the fourth frame when he gave up a leadoff double to Chris Baker, but the Texas A&M product fanned Edwin Moreno and Michael Gettys. While Padres No. 15 prospect Josh Naylor walked, Long got Austin Allen to pop out and end the inning. Utilizing his fastball and his slider, Long doubled his season strikeout total.
"I think it's huge, especially being able to get not only those two strikeouts in that inning, but seven throughout the game was big for him. … He really seemed to find that pitch to be able to put guys away," said Wuertz, who coached Long at the end of 2016. "It was the best I've seen. From pitch 1 to pitch 80, he threw competitive pitches. I think that for him is huge, just being competitive throughout the whole outing."
A year after the Angels selected him in the third round of the 2015 Draft, Long was felled by the injury bug, first with bicep tendinitis, then a fractured finger while he was rehabbing. After being limited to 65 innings over 15 starts, the Houston native participated in the Arizona Fall League, where he scuffled a bit.
But after continuing that trend with a 7.71 ERA in his first two starts of 2017, Long took a step forward against the Storm as he embarks on what should be his first full season.
"I think having some experience, getting into the Fall League and having ups and downs from last year and a few little road bumps already this year, hopefully he's mature enough to understand what he needs to do and he can keep his mind right," Wuertz said. "And hopefully he can have that confidence in himself to continue to make pitches."
After Long exited, the game turned into a battle of bullpens, particularly after Josh Naylor tied the game in the ninth with his first homer of the season. Baker knocked a go-ahead single in the 10th for the Storm, but the 66ers rallied with a game-tying sacrifice fly by Jose Rojas in the 10th.
In the 11th, Lake Elsinore loaded the bases with nobody out, but Wuertz knew reliever Jeremy Rhoades was ready for the challenge.
"Being a former reliever myself, those are the situations that you kind of prepare for in a way, in certain situations like, 'OK, bases loaded, nobody out, what do I have to do? How can I execute pitches?' And you just got to envision yourself getting out of that. Rhoades came in and got an unfortunate bases-loaded, nobody-out jam and battled his butt off and was able to pitch out of that. And that led to a lot of things for us, we had the momentum going in our favor after that."
Rhoades (2-0) got a strikeout and induced two groundouts to silence the threat. After a one-out single by Zach Gibbons, Angels No. 25 prospect Jared Foster ended the contest with a walk-off single.