April hasn't always been kind to Nick Pivetta. Last season, he posted a 4.56 ERA in 25 2/3 innings for Double-A Reading. In 2015 with Class A Advanced Potomac he struggled with his control, walking 11 in 20 frames, and the year before that, he opened with a 4.57 ERA over the first month in Class A.
This hasn't been the usual April for the Phillies' No. 12 prospect. Then again, it wasn't a normal January, February or March either. Ahead of his first big league Spring Training, Pivetta began working out at the Phillies facility in January to prepare for his trip to the World Baseball Classic with Team Canada.
Video: IronPigs' Pivetta gets Zimmer swinging
"It helped me out a lot to get going that early," Pivetta said. "I felt like I was going into the season at 100 percent. Usually, it takes me about three starts to get going and feel really loose out there. Where I am now, it's like where I'd normally be one month in."
On Thursday, Pivetta entered territory he'd never been before, April or otherwise.
The 24-year-old right-hander struck out a career-high 11 while allowing one earned run on four hits and two walks over six innings to lead Triple-A Lehigh Valley to a 4-2 win over Columbus at Coca-Cola Park. His previous high in Ks was nine, which he most recently achieved with the IronPigs on Aug. 18, 2016.
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"I had a lot of pitches working for me today," he said. "My off-speed was good. The fastball was down in the zone, and I was able to put it pretty much where I wanted. I had everything feeling the way it should, and when that happens, I know it can be a good day."
There were signs early on it would be a K-heavy day -- he fanned a pair of top-10 Indians prospects,Erik Gonzalez and Bradley Zimmer, in the first inning. (The frame's other out was a pickoff of Ronny Rodriguez at first base.) Pivetta continued to deal as the day wore on with seven of his 11 strikeouts coming against Clippers seeing him for a second or third time. His only run allowed came in the sixth when Gonzalez tripled and scored on a groundout by Rodriguez.
"I was primarily trying to stay on the fastball the first time through," he said. "There were some curveballs and sliders, but it was mostly fastballs. But the second time, I really had the slider moving and was finishing guys off well with that. Between that and the fastball, they have to stay on both and try to respect them both, which can be tough. It just came down to executing for me."
The two walks were the first free passes the 2013 fourth-rounder has issued in 19 innings this season. That's a major improvement for a starter who allowed 10 walks in 24 2/3 frames at Triple-A last season and averaged 4.0 BB/9 in 2015. Pivetta said the walks and his first-pitch strike rate (13 of 23) were things he needed to improve upon heading into his fourth start of the season, but he acknowledged how he's been able to find the zone more consistently to begin 2017.
"That's all about staying back, using my lower half more effectively," he said. "It's not usually a mechanical battle for me out there. It's more about being consistent with how fluid my delivery is and making sure I repeat those mechanics."
With the win, Pivetta improved to 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, 24 strikeouts and the two walks in 19 innings. Only Columbus right-hander Mike Clevinger (25) has struck out more Triple-A batters this season. With his spot on the 40-man roster secured last November, those numbers would seemingly put Pivetta on the Phillies' radar for a potential Major League promotion should the need arise early in the season.
The Phils already have already dipped into the IronPigs rotation in 2017, bringing up Ben Lively on Wednesday following the news that Clay Buchholz will miss four to six months after undergoing surgery on his right forearm. With 128 2/3 innings at Triple-A, Lively had much more experience at the Minors' highest level than Pivetta (43 2/3 innings), but Ricardo Pinto (1.47) is the only other Lehigh Valley starter with an ERA below 4.00. Pivetta isn't just looking for a chance to make a spot start, though. He's hoping to build on his impressive April to create success over the long term.
"Honestly, I don't think about that too much," he said of the potential for a move to the Majors. "My focus is here in Lehigh. If it happens, it happens and that's great. But all I'm thinking about is staying consistent here, putting in the time because whenever that call comes, I want to make sure I'm ready to be there for a while."