The phrase "what a difference a year makes" is a cliche frequently thrown about in sports.
In the case of top Mariners pitching prospect Danny Hultzen, however, it is appropriate.
In June 2011, he was the ace of the Virginia Cavaliers as they reached the semifinals of the College World Series. By June of this year, he was already at Triple-A, pitching for the Tacoma Rainiers.
"I hadn't really thought about it until this year's Draft happened a month-and-a-half ago," Hultzen said. "It's crazy to think that, in just a year, that I'm in such a different place than I was a year ago. I've grown as a person, I've grown as a baseball player. It's amazing how much has happened in a year."
Hultzen was the Mariners' choice with the No. 2 overall selection in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. He signed too late to appear in the Minors, but Seattle aggressively promoted him this season, starting him at Double-A Jackson and then moving him up to Tacoma on June 23.
"First of all, it's awesome not having to worry about school," Hultzen said with a laugh when asked about the adjustment from college to pro ball. "I can focus on baseball, which is a dream come true."
While Hultzen dominated the Southern League (8-3, 1.19 ERA in 13 starts), the Pacific Coast League has not been as kind.
"As expected, this level is a lot more difficult than the lower levels, not that the lower levels weren't difficult," Hultzen said Friday afternoon. "There's definitely a notch up of talent and maturity that makes these guys very good and hard to pitch to. They're a lot more experienced, a lot more disciplined, they've been playing ball for a very long time. A lot of older guys, they have a plan.
"I'm still adjusting to it and trying to find the way I need to get a whole lot better."
Hultzen has pitched well at home (1-0, 1.80 ERA in four starts), but has been roughed up in three road starts (0-2, 10.66) at two hitters' havens, Colorado Springs and Tucson.
The Padres roughed up Hultzen for six earned runs in 5 2/3 innings Saturday night.
Walks have been Hultzen's nemesis on the circuit, with 24 in 32 2/3 innings.
"Right now, not so good with the command," he said. "I need to work on, not even painting on the corners with any of (my pitches), but generally throwing them in the strike zone. When I'm doing that, I can put my team in a position to win."
Hultzen is the first of Seattle's elite pitching prospects to reach Tacoma. Right-hander Taijuan Walker and lefty James Paxton are still at Jackson.
"It was fun to be a part of that group," Hultzen said. "Hopefully one day we can be together again."
Ace of Aces: While Hultzen has struggled, another lefty who made the recent move up from Double-A has excelled in the PCL. Reno's Tyler Skaggs improved to 3-1 with a 2.28 ERA in five starts Tuesday, when he allowed just one earned run in 5 2 /3 innings as the Aces beat Colorado Springs, 6-4. Then on Sunday, he went allowed a run on six hits while fanning 10 to lower his ERA to 2.08 in Reno's walk-off win over Sacramento. Skaggs was 5-4 with a 2.84 ERA in 13 starts at Mobile earlier this year.
Dynamite debut: Right-hander Jacob Turner showed New Orleans fans why he was the centerpiece of a recent trade between the Marlins and Tigers. Turner allowed one run in five innings Saturday as the Zephyrs beat Iowa, 2-1. Turner was one of three prospects acquired by the Marlins earlier in the week for big-league pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante.
Record setter: Todd Linden's sixth overall season with the Fresno Grizzlies has been a record-setting affair. Linden hit the 18th triple of his Fresno career Wednesday, giving him nine team records. Linden has also become the Grizzlies' all-time leader in hits (533), runs (348), doubles (110), home runs (80), RBI (293), walks (253), strikeouts (502) and games played (519).