Josh Fleming hadn't pitched badly. His 3.75 ERA was fourth among qualified pitchers in the Southern League, even if it was more than a run higher than what he posted in 2018. The Rays left-hander had eight wins, but opponents were batting .268 against him, higher than what he'd allowed
Josh Fleming hadn't pitched badly. His 3.75 ERA was fourth among qualified pitchers in the Southern League, even if it was more than a run higher than what he posted in 2018. The Rays left-hander had eight wins, but opponents were batting .268 against him, higher than what he'd allowed at every level except the Rookie-level Appalachian League in his debut season.
The Double-A Montgomery staff knew there was more in the tank. So Biscuits manager Morgan Ensberg and pitching coach R.C. Lichtenstein sat Fleming down over a week ago and proposed an idea. He would move from the third-base side of the pitching rubber to the first-base side. It was a marginal adjustment, but one they expected would make his pitches sharper.
In two starts since, the 23-year-old has tossed the first two nine-inning complete games of his career. The latest gave Montgomery a 2-0 win over Birmingham on Sunday at Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium. Fleming (10-4) surrendered only three hits and a walk while striking out six.
Is this the best he has ever pitched?
"I think so," Fleming said. "Everything's just falling into place. All my pitches are working out, and my confidence is super, super high right now. It's at a different level right now. I feel like I can get anyone out. It's awesome. It's an awesome feeling."
The 2017 fifth-rounder faced one batter over the minimum. A 4-3 double play in the second inning wiped out a leadoff walk issued to Damek Tomscha. Alfredo González singled in the third for the Barons' first hit, but was thrown out trying to steal second base. The next seven batters were retired before Joel Booker's knock in the sixth, but he was doubled off when Laz Rivera lined out to end the inning. Only No. 13 White Sox prospectLuis González, who singled with two outs in the eighth, was stranded.
The gem lowered Fleming's ERA to 3.25. He's won five of his last six starts while not allowing more than an earned run in each of his last four.
Gameday box score
Through them all, his mechanics have not changed. Neither has his sequencing. But moving a few inches down the rubber seemingly has unlocked a new pitcher. The adjustment, Fleming said, felt natural as soon as he tried it in a bullpen session.
So he gave it a go in a game situation on July 23 and let up a lone run on five hits in a complete game against Tennessee. He struck out six and did not walk a batter.
"It did actually make everything a little sharper," he said. "It made my sinker sharper, had a little more late bite. It made my slider harder and added more depth to it. The curveball and changeup benefited from it as well."
That night, Fleming threw 99 pitches. On Sunday, he threw 88. The game took only an hour and 45 minutes. Part of that pace can be attributed to the fact that the Biscuits offense didn't take much time to produce. Tristan Gray's solo home run to right field against left-hander Matt Tomshaw in the fourth was one of just five hits. No. 13 Rays prospectJosh Lowe knocked a sacrifice fly in the sixth to plate 20th-ranked Taylor Walls. That was all.
Fleming credited the way he and batterymate Brett Sullivan worked together as another factor in the game's duration. While Montgomery batted, the pairing discussed how to attack the Barons due up. When Fleming got out to the mound, there was no need to shake off Sullivan. Those decisions were already made in the dugout.
"I knew what I was going to do when I was going to do it," he said. "The confidence was super high and I trust him and everything he was calling. Everything worked out. Every pitch I threw was good. The command on everything was good."
The result was the Biscuits' Southern League-leading 17th shutout. For Fleming, it was a "Maddux" -- a complete-game shutout with fewer than 100 pitches. Even so, there is still more he'd like to fix. He could locate his sinker better. He could land more curveballs for first-pitch strikes. And he'll try to moving forward.
He just won't be doing any of that from the third-base side of the rubber.
"I do not think I'll be going back there at all for the rest of my career, honestly," Fleming said.
Joe Bloss is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jtbloss.