Getting back in the groove of being a starter isn't always easy, but Michael Rucker thinks he's right there.
The newly crowned Carolina League Pitcher of the Week worked into the eighth inning for the first time in his career Monday, striking out a career-high 10 while allowing two hits over eight frames as Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach edged Buies Creek, 2-0, in 11 innings. He didn't issue a walk for the second time in his last five starts.
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"Right now, I'm just continuing to get a five-day starter routine nailed down, which has been the biggest thing with me learning," Rucker said. "Tonight was the most pitches I've thrown and I still felt good enough to go. It just came down to not going that far before."
After Ryne Birk doubled with one out in the first inning, the Cubs right-hander set down the next 21 Astros batters -- nine by strikeout -- before Houston's No. 28 prospect Stephen Wrenn tripled with one out in the eighth. Rucker struck out Spencer Johnson and got Randy Cesar to ground out to short to keep the scoreboard clean.
"I was just trying to keep it down, have him chase because I have two bases open or pound something into the ground," he said. "The strikeout was big-time to get that second out and definitely took the pressure off me, especially with one of their weaker bats up."
The 2016 11th-round pick made the first 19 appearances of his career out of the bullpen before joining Myrtle Beach's rotation June 5. He's allowed more than one run in an outing only twice as a starter, in consecutive games June 30 at Down East and July 5 against Buies Creek. Since then, he's given up three hits and a walk while striking out 17 over 15 innings.
"Ever since the last start, things have been clicking. I'm feeling good and my stuff has its movement," Rucker said. "I've been able to place it in the zone, get guys to chase and have pitches start out of the zone and come back in."
After briefly battling a dead arm in that early July matchup with Buies Creek, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound hurler threw a season-high 92 pitches Monday night. But he remained efficient after throwing 80 pitches over seven innings in his previous start, a trait Rucker strives to display every time he takes the mound.
"I had a conversation with [manager] Buddy Bailey about a week ago, talking to me about what it takes to get to the next level," Rucker said. "Guys that make the money, the workhorses at the big league level, they get deep into games, get above 100 on the pitch count, give the team a chance and pitch 220-plus innings. My mind-set is I want to get as deep as I can and give our team a chance to win."
He did just that, matched through seven innings by Buies Creek starter Ryan Hartman, who scattered three hits and one walk while striking out six.
James Norwood (3-0) fanned four in two hitless innings out of the bullpen for the Pelicans, who took the lead in the 11th on back-to-back singles by Jesse Hodges and Tyler Alamo.
Dakota Mekkes struck out the side in a 1-2-3 11th for his second save.