Montgomery Biscuits ace Chris Mason is MiLB.com's Double-A Starting Pitcher of the Year, adding yet another honor to his long list of accomplishments this season.
Mason went 15-4 with a 2.57 ERA in 28 starts. Tampa Bay's second-round draft pick in 2005 already has been tabbed the Southern League Pitcher of the Year. He also was a midseason and postseason All-Star and twice was named SL Pitcher of the Week.
"It's a great achievement and I'm honored to be selected for it," said Mason. "It means a lot. It's an individual award and someone has to get it, so I was lucky enough that I had a good season and I got it."
The individual honors, however, paled in comparison to the Southern League championship the Biscuits won, he said.
"If we didn't win the championship, it wouldn't have meant as much," Mason added. "Having the record I did, I think that it just added to [the title]. It just completed the year after winning a championship."
Montgomery manager Billy Gardner Jr. had nothing but praise for the pitcher who led the Biscuits to their second straight title.
"Chris Mason was the anchor of our staff," Gardner said. "He was very important. At the end of the day, we finished the season with one starting pitcher in the rotation who started with us on Opening Day, and that was Chris Mason."
A mainstay in the Biscuits' evolving and powerful arsenal of arms, the 23-year-old right-hander began with a hot April and ended the season posing for a team photo after another league championship. In Game 3 of the Southern League Finals, he scattered eight hits over six shutout innings and helped Montgomery take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-5 series.
"He's got a lot of pluses from me," said Gardner. "He throws strikes, keeps the ball down and he's got good command of the ball."
Mason led the Biscuits in wins, ERA, strikeouts (136) and innings pitched (161 1/3).
"He's got a good sinker, got a good out pitch in the slider and he added the changeup, which gives him that three-pitch profile down the road," said Gardner. "He holds runners, he's quick to the plate, he's got a lot of pluses on his side, especially if he continues as a starter."
Mason developed his changeup late last season at Class A Advanced Visalia.
"I used it a lot this year," he said. "I remember in one start against Tennessee, I threw like 30 changeups and 26 were for strikes, so I'm very confident in it. I can throw it in any count for strikes. It's probably my third best pitch at this point right now, but I'm still comfortable throwing it in any count, any inning, in any situation."
The University of North Carolina-Greensboro product's numbers portrayed his dominance this year. He led the Southern League in wins and trailed only Josh Geer of the Texas League's San Antonio Missions for victories among Double-A pitchers. Mason ranked seventh in Double-A in strikeouts and ninth in innings.
Keeping the ball down and throwing strikes were keys to his success.
"I had good defense behind me, a great offense to pick me up, so it really was a combination of everything," he said. "Everything went my way and I had a lot of luck this year."
Montgomery supplied Mason with plenty of support at the plate, with Evan Longoria, Reid Brignac, Chris Nowak, John Jaso and Fernando Perez all contributing to a consistent attack.
"I've gotten to see him in every game he's ever pitched, and he was fantastic last year," said Perez, the Biscuits' center fielder who also played behind Mason last season at Visalia. "He was a lot better this year, and it didn't surprise me."
Mason's 2007 campaign was a substantial improvement over his sophomore season in the California League. He went 12-10 with a 5.02 ERA in 28 games in 2006, a year after appearing in 19 games between Class A Short-Season Hudson Valley and Class A Southwest Michigan.
"The California League is very much a hitters' league and everyone knows it, so the key was to keep my pitches down," said Mason, who allowed only seven home runs in 161 1/3 innings in 2007. "Even then, the ball still goes out of the park, so I think this shows the ball doesn't fly as much [on the East Coast]. And that showed a lot this year."
Mason was in complete control on June 24, when he tossed a three-hitter for his first career complete game in a 7-0 blanking of Mississippi. He struck out six and walked one to become the Southern League's first 10-game winner.
"Every time he had a lackluster outing, he didn't do it twice all season long," said Perez. "That was really impressive about him. In center field, you have a wonderful view of what's going on with his tempo. It's a joy to play behind him, he gets out there and he executes."
Gardner wouldn't speculate on Mason's potential promotion to Triple-A Durham next season but said he is certainly on the road to big-league success.
"If he throws strikes like he does, his future is pretty bright," Gardner said.
"I have no idea, those things are out of my control, so I don't worry about it," Mason added. "If I'm lucky enough to make [Tampa Bay], I still have to do my job. I'm just going to control what I can and just let the people who have the power take control."
Those in control must have taken notice after Mason went 3-0 with a 1.26 ERA in five April starts. He was 4-1 in May, ran off a 10-start unbeaten streak after the All-Star Game and finished up with a 3-0 mark and 2.57 ERA in August.
Right-handers hit .207 with three homers in 319 at-bats against Mason, who held foes to a .197 average with runners in scoring position and two outs.
"It was impressive, the way he was able to throw when he didn't have his best stuff," said Perez. "He was almost more effective when he didn't have his best stuff. There's a lot of guys who can't do that. If he's throwing 92 mph, he's winning. And if he's only throwing 86 or 87 mph, he's still winning. And he did that really well."
"I was just trying to keep the ball down and keep mixing it up, but if you don't have your stuff, you need help from your defense," added Mason. "And your offense has to pick you up.
"The biggest thing, if I didn't have the velocity or the slider wasn't working or the change was too hard, was to keep the ball down around the knees. Don't miss up. That was the biggest thing. But when I didn't have my best stuff, I had to keep it at the knees."