For as long as he can remember, Zac Curtis has been a starting pitcher. But after an innings limit was implemented for the Arizona Diamondbacks prospect, who pitched 114 innings for Middle Tennessee State University earlier this year, the sixth-round pick in the June Draft has quickly adjusted to life out of the bullpen.
With 19 relief appearances now under his belt, not only has Curtis adjusted, he's thrived as the closer for the Hillsboro Hops.
"In college and all throughout my baseball career I've been a starter, but with the amount of innings I threw this season in college, they told me they wanted me out of the bullpen," Curtis said. "My first outing wasn't as a closer, but the coaching staff saw success and asked if I'd like to step into that role. I took the opportunity as it was and wanted to be the best wherever they put me."
In 21 innings, Curtis has allowed just two earned runs. The 5-foot-10 southpaw has converted 12 of his 13 save opportunities while striking out 31. Perhaps even more impressive -- opposing hitters are batting just .164 against him.
"When he gets on the mound, he's energetic," said Hillsboro pitching coach Doug Drabek, the 1990 National League Cy Young Award winner. "He gets the ball and he's ready to go. He doesn't shy away from contact, and he's aggressive to the plate with whichever pitch he's throwing."
It took Curtis exactly one inning to earn the opportunity to close out games. In his first professional outing on June 14, Curtis entered with Hillsboro leading 3-2 in the eighth inning. He promptly struck out the side in a perfect 1-2-3 inning.
Physical ability aside, Curtis believes his new role is allowing for a new mentality on the mound.
"It's a lot different because you don't have to see hitters multiple times. At best, you only see three guys so you can take your best two pitches and go right after them," Curtis said. "You don't try and pace yourself, you just go right after them and look for outs."
That mentality has seemingly worked for the 22-year-old Tennessee native, who converted his first four saves with just three hits allowed.
Zac Curtis already has the look of a closer despite being a starter all his life. (Jared Ravich/MiLB.com)
Curtis experienced the first bump in an otherwise smooth road when he surrendered three hits and two earned runs in a blown save against the Everett AquaSox on June 30. But despite taking the loss, Curtis remained confident in his ability to close for the Hops.
"As soon as I throw that last pitch in the bullpen, I tell myself it's time to close the door," Curtis said. "I have the confidence that I'm going to go out there and shut the door 1-2-3 every time I step on the mound."
That confidence has paid off for the southpaw. Since his lone blown save, Curtis has not allowed a single earned run to score in 14 innings. He is 2-0 with eight saves during that span. More importantly, Curtis helped guide the Hops to a 22-16 record and a South Division title in the first-half of the season.
Curtis was honored for his success with a trip to the 2014 Northwest League All-Star Game. Filling a role he is quickly becoming accustomed to, Curtis entered the game in the ninth inning and fired two scoreless innings with three strikeouts to preserve the 0-0 tie.
"It was a lot of fun. All-Star Games are pretty individualized, and it's nice to know I can go out there and compete with the best of the best throughout the entire league," Curtis said.
From Middle Tennessee State to Hillsboro, Oregon, Curtis is finally experiencing professional baseball. It may not be the role he was expecting to fill, but Curtis is still thriving, and he's having the time of his life doing it.
"It's been a blast and I couldn't have asked for anything better," Curtis said. "I couldn't ask for a better first team to play with or a better first group of guys to be with. The success I've had, the success that we've had, I hope I can continue to be on teams like the one I'm on right now."
Spokane surprise: Spokane made history Sunday when four Indians pitchers combined for an 11-inning no-hitter against the Everett AquaSox. Derek Thompson, Shane McCain, Adam Parks and Luis Pollorena teamed up to combine for the first extra-inning no-hitter in Northwest League history. In total, the quartet of pitchers walked just two batters and struck out 14.
Grand slamming: Since ending the All-Star Game in a 0-0 tie on Aug. 5, the Northwest League has seen a bevy of offense on display throughout the circuit. Boise third baseman Jesse Hodges went 4-for-5 with a grand slam and seven RBIs in the team's 17-3 win over Eugene on Aug. 10. The very next night, Hillsboro's Zach Esquerra connected with the first grand slam in Hops franchise history. He also set the franchise record for most RBIs in a game (6).
Mr. Base-ball: Spanning from his first at-bat Aug. 10 against Eugene to his third at-bat on Aug. 12, Boise outfielder Charcer Burks reached base safely in 11 consecutive plate appearances. A ninth-round pick of the Cubs in 2013, Burks went 4-for-4 with seven walks during that streak and also hit a walk-off single in Boise's 9-8 win over the Emeralds on the day his streak was snapped.