Although A.J. Puckett picked up his first win of the season during his last start, he wasn't totally satisfied with his final line. So after he came out of the game, the No. 11 Royals prospect chatted with Class A Advanced Blue Rocks pitching coach Charlie Corbell about what he could improve upon next start. The conversation quickly paid dividends.
Puckett (2-1) allowed three hits and struck out eight over a career-high seven innings to lead Wilmington to a 1-0 win over Winston-Salem on Thursday at Frawley Stadium.
"It was just the mentality of my last inning of my last start [against Potomac] that was a lot different," the right-hander said. "It was a lot cleaner, I was getting ahead on guys. I really sat down ... and thought about it.
"In this start what I really wanted to do was really focus on mentality over stuff. Attacking the zone even if my stuff wasn't there and do whatever I can to try and hit my spot and just get outs."
The 2016 second-round pick outperformed Dash starter Aron McRee (0-2), who allowed an earned run on two hits and a walk while fanning six in six innings.
"I don't think it should add any pressure. It is a different situation, it's a one-run ballgame," Puckett said. "You can't let these situations get too much. You just have to go out there and let your defense pick you up."
Luis Alexander Basabe singled to start the outing, but the Pepperdine product struck out Aaron Schnurbusch and got both Toby Thomas and Brady Conlan to fly out to right field.
"I wasn't too frustrated with myself after they got that leadoff single," he said. "My main goal was to attack the zone and force contact. So when you do that, some hits are going to happen. I think, at the end of the day, if I give up a couple of hits and no runs and no walks, I'll be happy with that. When you walk guys and give up free bases, I think that's what hurts you most as a pitcher. Let the guys swing the bat and let them get themselves out.
"That's something I really want to do and attack the zone and didn't get discouraged by that single. I missed my spot, he hit the ball, just go after the next guy and change my spot."
Puckett built off that first frame, retiring 16 of the final 19 batters he faced. He pounded the zone, throwing 58 of his 82 pitches for strikes.
After a fielding error by Blue Rocks first baseman Roman Collins with one out in the fifth, Puckett struck out the next three hitters and got the final two outs of the sixth on five pitches, which enabled him to come back out for another inning.
The seventh started with a leadoff single by Louis Silverio, who advanced on a sacrifice bunt by Landon Lassiter. But Puckett worked out of trouble again, getting Johan Cruz to fly out to right and Daniel Gonzalez to bounce out to third. It marked the right-hander's longest outing since college.
"You can't change your mentality throughout the game," Puckett said. "You can't say, 'I have to strike out guys.' When you try and do that you lose yourself and maybe start missing pitches, start walking guys. I tried to keep it the same and in that seventh inning after that single. The last two guys, it was first-pitch outs. I was forcing contact. It's something I want to carry on and bring into the future."
Jacob Bodner scattered three hits over the final six outs for his first save.
After compiling a 3.68 ERA between Rookie ball and Class A during his first professional season, the 6-foot-4 hurler sports a 1.59 ERA through three starts this season. But Puckett knows he has to do some more fine-tuning.
"I'll sit down and watch the film from this start," he said. "I made a couple of bad pitches and gave up some hits. I'll take the good things of hitting my spots and getting the outs that I did and go from there. It's taking from the good and just saying, 'All right, keep this up,' and not bring myself down and not get too hard on myself -- it is a good start, enjoy it."
Elier Hernandez drove in Basabe with a first-inning single for the lone run of the game.