Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, Kieran Lovegrove hadn't even heard of baseball when his family relocated to California when he was 5 years old.
So Lovegrove spent his free time playing cricket on the beach. It was there, he said, that he learned how to throw and bat. Success has not come easily to the Indians right-handed prospect in his first three years in pro ball stateside, but deep down, he knew he had the talent to compete with the best of them.
Despite an ERA north of 10.00, the 19-year-old did not get discouraged. He let the struggles fuel his inner drive to succeed and that motivation led to the best outing of his young career Thursday evening.
Lovegrove pitched five hitless innings in the short-season Mahoning Valley Scrappers' 4-2 win over the host Auburn Doubledays. He struck out five batters and issued two walks in lowering his ERA to 6.59.
"In my pro career, this is up there. This is the one where it all felt together," said Lovegrove. "Mentally I felt strong. The stuff has always been good, but I would have mental lapses. Tonight, I kept on the gas pedal.
"You can really get yourself off track. Pitching is a tough thing when you have a lot of time after a tough start. I knew I could use my mistakes to better myself on the mound. It's all about building off previous starts."
Selected by the Indians in the third round of the 2012 Draft out of California's Mission Viejo High School, the 6-foot-4 right-hander cruised through his fourth start of the season in stark contrast to the previous three. He worked around a leadoff walk in each of the first two innings, but settled down to retire the final 10 batters while facing one over the minimum.
"I wasn't trying to do too much. I was just trying to pitch to contact and it worked out well," said Lovegrove, who visited Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban last offseason for the first time since he last left the country in 1999. "We got some good defense and I was in sync with my catcher [Francisco Mejia]. I got back to where I wanted to be, pitching-wise."
David Speer worked a perfect sixth to carry the no-hit bid into the seventh, but David Masters broke it up with a leadoff double to left field off the southpaw. Jose Marmolejos-Diaz then spoiled the shutout with an RBI single to center field.
Lovegrove got off to a shaky start in 2014, allowing six runs on five hits and four walks in his season debut against Jamestown on June 15 and surrendering a pair of runs on four hits and two free passes in Batavia on June 20. Last Thursday, he gave up two runs on four hits and four walks over 4 1/3 innings again against the Jammers.
Entering Thursday, he sported a 10:2 walk-to-strikeout ratio over 8 2/3 frames, and opponents were hitting .371 against him.
"I dropped my arm angle a little bit tonight and it helped me get more run on my fastball," said Lovegrove, who described his new angle as low- to mid-three-quarters. "My pitching coach Greg Hibbard saw me fighting it and he said I was trying to get too high. So I went back to the same arm slot I had earlier in my career. I think maybe I thought I had to get a bit more behind the ball, get more through it. But it caused a lot more problems."
Lovegrove spent each of the past two years with Cleveland's Rookie-level Arizona League affiliate. He was 0-2 with a 6.00 ERA in his rookie season and he posted a 1-7 record and a 5.25 ERA over 13 games, including 12 starts, last season.
The right-hander knew he could do better and he reintroduced a curveball into his repertoire. His other three pitches -- fastball, slider and changeup -- all come in between the mid-80s and low-90s, so he sought a fourth pitch.
"I wanted a pitch that I could throw early in the count and make the hitter think about it," said Lovegrove, who threw 69 pitches and was on a limit of five innings or 80 pitches, whichever came first. "I wanted a pitch I could flip over. I hadn't thrown a curveball since probably my sophomore year of high school, because I went to a slider as I got bigger and started throwing harder. It's not a 12-6 curve, more of a power breaking ball."
Mahoning Valley's Dominic DeMasi retired both batters he faced and Jordan Carter followed with two perfect innings to earn his first career save in his fourth game in the Minors.
Auburn's Reynaldo Lopez (1-2) took the hard-luck loss, allowing one run on one hit while striking out five batters over six innings.