Caleb Ferguson has gotten stronger in every start this season. He continued that progression Tuesday night.
The 16th-ranked Dodgers prospect allowed two hits while striking out nine over five innings before Double-A Tulsa dropped a 1-0 decision to Midland at ONEOK Field.
Video: Caleb Ferguson fans nine
Ferguson threw 53 of 73 pitches for strikes, two fewer than he did over 4 2/3 innings in his last start. In his season debut on April 6, he recorded only two outs before reaching his inning pitch limit and was charged with an unearned run on a hit and a walk. Tuesday night he was able to go five full innings, something he's focused on accomplishing each time out.
"Not wearing the bullpen out is important," he said. "Whenever I can go deeper into games and pitch a little bit longer, that saves those guys' arms the best I can. They run a lot of innings, so any time you can save their arms is kind of big."
Ferguson was taken in the 38th round of the 2014 First-Year Player Draft, coming off Tommy John surgery. He was committed to West Virginia, but the Dodgers convinced him to sign. The 21-year-old left-hander led the California League with a 2.87 ERA last season and ranked third with 140 strikeouts while working a career-high 122 1/3 innings for Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga.
Gameday box score
He walked four batters per nine innings a year ago, but has issued just four free passes in three starts this season. Ferguson has worked on his command, focusing on improving his fastball location. His velocity has gone up a tick, topping out at 95 mph last season after beginning his career in the low 90s.
"My fastball and curveball were on tonight," said Ferguson. "The curve worked off the fastball really, really well. I was locating the curveball for strikes and it was a real swing-and-miss pitch."
The Columbus, Ohio native's strikeout rate has increased each year, from 63 over 66 1/3 innings two years ago to averaging more than one per nine last season. Although aware of his swing-and-miss potential, Ferguson's also pitching to contact, which has substantially lowered his walk rate.
"It's never really been a stuff thing for me," he said. "I was never worried about that. If I want to have that many strikeouts, I have to keep the pitch count down. It's a huge confidence boost to go out there and not only strike guys out, but sort of get contact and get outs."
Success in this area has boosted Ferguson's confidence in his approach. Instead of trying to fire it past everyone, he can use strengths such as the curveball and pitcher's counts to his advantage.
"I'm not overpitching anymore," he said. "Last year, I became too aware of everything and was trying to throw as hard as I can and beat everyone with whatever pitch I'm going to throw, instead of locating each pitch well. Trying to keep my body under control now, and focus on what I'm doing now to set up the next pitches."
A year more experienced, Ferguson also has focused on preparation and pitch location to keep his count lower.
"Game planning is important," he said. "Off the top, getting better with knowing who I am facing before the game. That's a big goal, along with just having a healthy year."
Karch Kowalczyk struck out one over 1 2/3 innings and Corey Copping got out the next four outs for Tulsa. Dylan Baker (0-1) took the loss after allowing a run on three hits in the ninth.
The outing came on the heels of a dominant 10-strikeout start by Dodgers No. 10 prospect Dennis Santana on Monday.
A's No. 8 prospect Sean Murphy singled with two outs in the ninth and scored the game's only run on a base hit by Tyler Marincov.