This time last year, Gerrit Cole's focus was split between graduating from college and pitching UCLA toward the College World Series.
Twelve months and an $8 million signing bonus later, Cole's priorities may have changed. But his alma mater still holds a special place in his heart.
MLB.com's No. 9 prospect scattered four hits over five scoreless innings Wednesday as the Class A Advanced Bradenton Marauders cruised to a 6-1 win over the Lakeland Flying Tigers.
The victory was the third straight for the top overall pick in last year's Draft. But as much as he's learned about pitching during his brief professional career, the things he picked up in college have helped shape him as a person.
"You just have a lot of stuff off the field and on the field," Cole said. "All that experience from college -- pitching in big games, studying, dealing with pressure at UCLA -- made me a well-rounded person.
"The hitters aren't swinging wood in college, so it's an adjustment going to the pros, where pitch counts are such high priorities."
In the Florida State League, the 21-year-old right-hander has the same energy and passion on the mound as he did when he suited up for Bruins. And he remains in close contact with his former teammates.
"I talked to my head coach earlier today and I've talked with a lot of the current players. They're in the top eight, so they're a lock for a top seed [in the NCAA Tournament]," he said. "I played with a lot of them, so it's nice to see them having a lot of success.
"Some of the younger guys that are still there will ask me about pitching adjustments or other stuff that they're dealing with in college. Some of the position players are really good friends of mine and we just talk. I miss those guys because we went to battle together so often."
On Wednesday, Cole battled at McKechnie Field. He worked around consecutive two-out singles in the first inning and used a double play to erase a walk and James McCann's infield hit in the second.
Marcus Lemon singled and stole second base in the third inning, but Cole stranded him there by striking out FSL batting leader Nick Castellanos and getting Tyler Collins to ground out. An inning later, the Flying Tigers put runners on the corners with two outs, but Wade Gaynor was cut down at the plate trying to score when the ball got away from catcher Kawika Emsley-Pai.
Cole pitched a 1-2-3 fifth -- his only perfect inning of the evening -- before leaving a scoreless game. The Marauders turned three singles, three walks and a balk in the bottom half to put Cole in line for the win.
"It was pretty good. Obviously, I would have liked to gone deeper into the ballgame, but when the team needed me to put up zeros, I was able to," said Cole, who threw 86 pitches. "I had a lot of foul balls and I made a lot of good pitches that weren't put in play early on.
"I think my strongest inning was my last one. I got in a groove with my mechanics in the fourth inning and I was even better in the fifth. You just have to get into a rhythm and see what guys are trying to do. It's a battle, a chess match."
Through nine starts, Cole ranks 10th in the FSL with a 2.60 ERA and has 46 strikeouts over 45 innings. He's allowed only four runs in five starts since suffering his only defeat on April 25, when he surrendered five runs -- two earned -- on three hits over five innings against Charlotte.
"I'm just taking it slow and keeping things simple. There are definitely a good handful of hitters in this league," Cole said. "You never take anything for granted because this game will humble you real quick. You can't say anything is easy.
"I'm a competitor and I'm here to give my team the best chance to win. That's why you play the game."
Jason Townsend followed Cole and gave up an unearned run on five hits and a walk while striking out one over two innings of relief. Quinton Miller pitched around a walk in two scoreless frames to seal the Marauders' second straight win.
Lakeland starter Alex Burgos (2-6) did not give up a hit until the fifth, when Bradenton scored five times. He was charged with five runs on three hits and five walks over five innings.