When Matt Moore woke up on Sept. 30 somewhere outside Arlington, Texas, he flashed back to the Southern League for a moment.
Moore was hours away from making the biggest start of his life: Game 1 of the American League Division Series against a potent Rangers lineup. It would be just the second Major League start for the 22-year-old.
"I wasn't told until 6:30 [p.m.] the day before that I'd be starting. They basically let me know the night before, and my parents and family are coming. The next morning, I did my regular game routine, had breakfast -- all the stuff I did when I was in the hotel in Knoxville, Tenn., getting ready to play the Tennessee Smokies," said Moore. "It felt similar to any other start. I wasn't overwhelmed with anxiety or excitement."
Moore, who emerged this summer as baseball's top pitching prospect, earned our pick for the MiLBY Award as the best overall starter in the Minors after going 12-3 with a 1.92 ERA in 27 starts between the Southern and International Leagues.
That dominance prompted a September call-up to the Rays. He took the mound in Camden Yards, Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium before being thrown into the playoff fire in front of Nolan Ryan and 50,000 towel-waving postseason fans in Texas.
"Fortunately I was pitching well enough to be given the opportunity, and what an experience -- I can't explain how much fun it was," Moore said of going up to Tampa Bay amidst a playoff race. "The run we made when Boston lost and we won -- that's something I'll always be able to say I was a part of."
A two-time Southern League All-Star (midseason and postseason) and the league's Most Outstanding Pitcher, Moore threw a no-hitter for the Biscuits on June 16. He was dominant at Triple-A as well, going 4-0 with a 1.37 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings over nine starts.
The New Mexico native finished second in the Minors with 210 strikeouts and pitched a frame in the Futures Game, the showcase event for elite prospects.
"It was nice the way things came together being in Phoenix with family and friends and playing in an All-Star game," he said. "I won't ever forget it."
Moore made 18 starts for the Biscuits and praised his teammate Chris Archer as both a friend and mentor as the two pushed each other to improve.
"He pushed me and challenged me a little -- it was a unique relationship we had in the sense that we're both cheering each other on," Moore said. "It's great getting to work with him."
A summer in Alabama, though, provided some additional motivation to get promoted.
"Being in that league," he said, "it kinda makes you pitch better because of how hot it is. If I didn't have a no-hitter going that night [June 16], I would have changed my shirt about six times, but I wasn't changing anything that day."
Moore struck out 11 in the no-no, eventually moving up to Triple-A Durham. He credited Bulls pitching coach Neil Allen, who also coached Moore when he was in Charlotte in 2010, for helping him get to the next level.
"It was great to get reacquainted with him. He knows what I do, so it's easier for him to use trigger words I'm familiar with," said Moore, who held batters to a .179 average in the IL. "That adjustment period was very easy. And I already knew a lot of the players."
Though many struggle to make the adjustment to Double-A, Moore breezed past everyone in his way.
"I couldn't tell much difference in the level of hitters. Double-A had some very good hitters, but it was the same thing with Triple-A," he said.
The 6-foot-2 lefty said he worked in the Minors on improving the best parts of his game, rather than worrying about adding new pitches.
"I broke it down into simplistic terms: there's only certain things I'm good at, so there's no use trying to do things I'm not good at," he said. "I'm relying on the things I'm comfortable doing, what's proven. Confidence is a huge thing."
His high-90s fastball and solid change-up were just as effective in the American League -- he said he found that out when he watched former MVP Dustin Pedroia swing through a change at Fenway.
"He's above me where I was at the same time period," Rays starter David Price said after Game 1 of the ALDS, a start in which Moore allowed just two hits in seven scoreless innings to pick up his team's only postseason win. "His changeup and his breaking ball, his slurve at 84, 85, 86 [mph]. His fastball and his change-up are so good he probably doesn't need that breaking ball. He has easier gas than I have. That's the easiest 97 I've ever seen."
Moore has genuinely enjoyed the ride.
"It was pretty incredible, to go from Baltimore to Boston -- one of the most famous ballpark in America -- to go to Yankee Stadium and pitch against some of the all-time greats, it's one of those feelings that I hadn't quite ever had," he said.
"I watched those guys play on TV, I thought about facing them. 'What would I throw [Derek] Jeter here, what would I throw [Jorge] Posada?' but when I was in the situation, it was kind of a calm mind-set. Those guys were my idols -- I grew up watching those guys, and now your idols turn into your rivals."
And as Moore's taxi approached the Ballpark at Arlington for Game 1, he called upon every experience from his time in the Minors to focus on the next big challenge.
"I'm getting closer to the park, now my heads in it, I'm thinking, I'm listening to music, but I'm still pretty calm," he said. "And then you step on the field, it's just baseball from there."