Alec Mills figured he was done with baseball when he left high school bound for the University of Tennessee at Martin. Mills, who played baseball, basketball and golf in high school, said he was content to study engineering and prepare for "the real world."
Then Mills heard about walk-on tryouts for the Skyhawks' baseball team. So he tugged on his baseball pants and joined other students -- some of whom were wearing jeans -- looking to extend their careers. Mills earned a spot on the team, and two years later he was getting starts against major conference schools, which brought plenty of opportunities to pitch in front of scouts.
Fast forward four years and Mills has endured rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery and is in his first season in Double-A, hoping to make the biggest jump in an unlikely career that could land him with the Kansas City Royals by September.
"I think everything happens for a reason," Mills said. "I didn't really pursue baseball out of high school. And then I told myself I could still compete at this level, and we'll see where this takes me.
"Scouts started watching and I thought, 'This is something that I can take to the Major League level.'"
Mills, a 22nd-round pick by the Royals in 2012, isn't there yet -- but he's on the right path. In his second full season since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2014, Mills is 1-1 with a 2.36 ERA over first seven starts. He's struck out 44 and walked six over 42 innings as the Royals' 14th-ranked prospect.
His last start might have been his best, when he held Springfield scoreless over six innings, giving up just three hits and striking out eight. He leads the Texas League in strikeouts, and his walks are the fewest among pitchers with at least seven starts.
Command, a common issue with young pitchers, has never been one for Mills. He walked just 14 in 113 1/3 innings last season and issued just 60 in more than 300 professional innings.
"Ever since I've started pitching, I've always thrown strikes, or I've always had the ability to," he said. "I think it's just a matter of putting it where you want to."
Mills has become so good at locating his array of four pitches -- fastball, changeup, curveball and slider -- he can almost control when and in what situations he issues walks. Dumb walks and smart walks, he calls them.
A smart walk is with first base open and a full count to a dangerous hitter at the plate.
"At this level, you take your lumps with walks to avoid big damage," he said.
A dumb walk is "four pitches to start an inning. Nobody wants those," he said.
Mills still has work to do. The results remain positive, but this season he's working to create more difference between his slider and his curveball.
"I still think I can throw them for a strike at any time, but they need to be good strikes," he said.
If so, Mills could be in line for his most accomplished season in a career he almost gave up on.
"It could be a year where I could make a big jump," he said. "There's no need to look forward to what could be, though. I just need to go out and take it start-by-start and let them make that decision."
Good timing: Tulsa's Cody Bellinger hit 30 home runs at Class A Advaned Rancho Cucamonga last season, but he struggled for his first homer this season. It finally came Saturday, in the form of a walk-off grand slam to beat the Arkansas Travelers, 6-2, in 10 innings. Bellinger, the Dodgers' fifth-ranked prospect, is hitting .179 with one home run and seven RBIs in 15 games after missing the first month of the season with a hip injury.
Solid debut: Evan Grills was promoted to Double A Corpus Christi on Friday, the same day he pitched a complete-game one-hitter in a victory over Frisco. Grills struck out five and walked one in the victory. He was promoted after going 3-1 with a 3.47 ERA in three starts at Class A Advanced Lancaster.
Streaking Cardinals: Harrison Bader hit in every game last week to extend his streak to 17 games and tie the longest in the Texas League. Teammate Luke Voit is almost as hot. He hit in every game last week as well to extend his streak to 13 games. Bader leads the Texas League with a .364 average, while Voit has raised his average almost 30 points to .276 since his streak began on May 2.