A three-word philosophy changed the way A.J. Puckett viewed pitching: mentality over stuff.
The right-hander was introduced to that mindset in his junior season at Pepperdine by new pitching coach Rolando Garza. What Garza wanted to see from his hurlers was simple -- even when command is lacking and the pitches don't feel right, keep attacking and give the team a chance to win.
Puckett took the advice to heart and has continued to utilize it as a professional.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Puckett, who was the Kansas City Royals' second-round selection in the 2016 Draft, has thrived in his first three starts this season with the Class A Advanced Wilmington Blue Rocks. He is 2-1 with a 1.59 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 17 innings.
"I think at the end of the day what defines a good pitcher or not is when his stuff's not there, how can he battle to give his team the best chance to win," Puckett said.
Puckett, a Walnut Creek, California, native, was initially not receptive to Garza's style of pitching during the fall camp. However, that changed toward the end of camp and allowed Puckett to thrive as a junior and raise his Draft stock considerably. He went 9-3 with a 1.27 ERA that year, which included a stretch of 45 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. Puckett was a consensus first-team All-American and was named the West Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year.
"His whole thing was focusing and attacking," Puckett said. "Even at the end of the day when you don't have your stuff, a person's mentality or just your will to believe in something is always going to overcome anything else. I think that's something that was really good to hear as a pitcher."
Puckett was the Royals' first selection in the 2016 Draft, and he agreed to a $1.2 million signing bonus.
The Royals quickly put him into games as he made two starts with their Arizona League affiliate last year and 11 more with the Lexington Legends of the Class A South Atlantic League. He was 2-4 with a 3.68 ERA in his 13 starts last season, often relying on the "mentality over stuff" mind-set while he learned hitters' tendencies on the professional level.
"I think it's been a pretty easy transition. I'm thankful to my coaching staff and just the guys and teams I've been on with Lexington and the team right here in Wilmington," Puckett said. "It's an easy transition when you have a great group of guys and guys want to do the same thing as you and win ballgames. It's been pretty swift and it's been fun."
Puckett, the Royals' No. 10 prospect, has enjoyed far more success in his first full professional season. He has pitched at least five innings in each of his three starts at Wilmington and he's only allowed three earned runs.
The 21-year-old enjoyed arguably the best start of his young career on Friday, holding the Winston-Salem Dash scoreless over seven innings for his second consecutive victory.
He was primarily a fastball-changeup pitcher in college, and he has worked on adding a third pitch to his arsenal.
"I was working on my curveball a little bit this offseason," Puckett said, "and I'm just going to go out there and just compete on the mound and attack the zone."
Puckett, who spent the past offseason with his family and said he received plenty of advice from veterans at Spring Training, hopes to reunite with Garza in the upcoming offseasons to continue working on his development. The mind-set was the main thing Garza wanted to teach Puckett. The next step will be developing his pitches so he can continue climbing the Royals' farm system.
"I'm very thankful I got to work with him in my last year at Pepperdine," Puckett said. "Hopefully I can keep on working with him in future offseasons."
In the win column: It took 13 starts before Keegan Akin finally recorded his first professional victory. The left-hander, who was Baltimore's second-round selection in the 2016 Draft and is the Orioles No. 6 prospect, picked up the victory Saturday in the first game of Frederick's doubleheader against Salem. He allowed one run on four hits over five innings, and he struck out seven. Akin was 0-1 with a 1.04 ERA in nine starts last season with Class A Short Season Aberdeen, and he was roughed up for 10 earned runs in 10 innings in his first three appearances with the Keys.
Sizzling start: Michael Chavis got a taste of the Carolina League last season when he was promoted from Greenville to Salem in late August. He's enjoying the second tour through the Class A Advanced league. The third baseman, who is the No. 10 Red Sox prospect, is batting a staggering .440/.563/1.160 through eight games. He leads the Carolina League with five homers and picked up Player of the Week honors on Monday.
New team, improved results: A change in scenery has benefited Michael O'Neill. The nephew of former Major Leaguer Paul O'Neill was twice drafted by the Yankees, signed with the Rangers as a free agent this past offseason and has enjoyed a stellar start with Down East, a new Rangers affiliate. O'Neill is hitting .344 with two home runs and eight RBIs and six stolen bases in 16 games for the Wood Ducks.