Tyler Phillips worked his way back up to the South Atlantic League with 12 strikeouts over seven innings with Class A Short Season Spokane to cap his 2017 season. Texas' No. 14 prospect outdid himself Tuesday.
Phillips recorded a career-high 13 punchouts over seven innings while surrendering six hits without a walk as Class A Hickory beat Kannapolis, 3-0, at L.P. Frans Stadium.
Gameday box score
Tuesday's outing was the culmination of a season's worth of mechanical development, but 16 months' worth of mental maturation.
"Everything finally worked for me tonight, and it's been a while for me since I experienced that," he said. "This was all just really fun."
Last April, the game was anything but that for Phillips. Initially, he was overjoyed to start his first full professional season at age 19. But the 16th-round pick in the 2015 Draft began the year splitting time starting and coming out of the bullpen, which not only messed with his routine but wrecked his confidence.
"I was all 'Woe is me, this [stinks]'," he said. "I remember one of my first bullpen appearances, I gave up seven runs and there was just a lot going through my head. I had people around me telling me, 'You know you're good enough to do this, don't you?' But I had to get that through my head. I wasn't consistent. I was walking a bunch of guys, wasn't getting a lot of strikeouts, and my mechanics got out of whack too."
Just seven appearances into the 2018 campaign, Phillips (9-5) was disappointed when he was called back to extended spring training.
"Our performance coordinator [Josiah Igono] told me, 'You can be [ticked] off this week, but you've got to see this as an opportunity,'" he recalled. "He told me, 'These young guys don't feel bad for you. They see it as an opportunity to move up and take your spot.' That lit a fire in me."
Eventually, Phillips joined Spokane, where he found an energetic group of teammates who helped give him a new perspective on the remainder of his 2017 season. Many of his Indians teammates were new draftees solely focused on winning a league title and having fun during their first days as professional baseball players. Over time, Phillips had forgotten about that part of the game, and when he bought into it, he found a team working full throttle behind him.
"I wrote on the inside of my hat, 'It's just a game' because I needed to make things fun," he said. "I was getting upset about a lot of things in Hickory, but as I started to find my mechanics again, that mentality comes back, and I have a team that's rallying behind me because they want to win so badly. They'll run through a wall for me and that helped a lot."
Phillips capped 2017 with his 12-strikeout performance and carried that momentum into 2018, when he was again sent to Hickory after Spring Training. This time around, he's cut down on his walks -- just 12 free bases over 104 innings entering Tuesday. But his curveball and changeup had been spotty until Tuesday.
The New Jersey high school product set down his first four batters before Tate Blackman lined a single to center field. The third baseman stole second one batter later, but Phillips forced Michael Hickman to ground out to second to excape the jam. In the third, the 20-year-old righty worked around a pair of singles from Ramon Beltre and Luis Curbelo with a trio of strikeouts. Fanning Steele Walker to end the frame showed him just how far he had come.
"I was most impressed I was able to keep my composure there," Phillips said. "In the past, I probably would have given up a run there after giving up a hit while ahead of a guy, 1-2. But I've got to have the confidence and not give up a run, so that one was big. Really, they were all big today."
The righty and catcher Yohel Pozo decided to attack with his fastball, before leaning on his changeup -- his most potent pitch when it's on. Phillips struck out the side in the fourth and picked up his 10th strikeout with two outs in the sixth before giving up his third single of the night on a grounder to center by Walker. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound righty got Craig Dedelow to line out to right to end the frame.
In the seventh, Phillips opened the door for the Intimidators as Tyler Frost followed Blackman's leadoff single with a line-drive double to right. But he didn't break, striking out his final three batters of the night.
"Last year, there's no shot I'm getting out of that," Phillips said. "My catcher came out to me, and I told him I was just going to sacrifice a run to get the first out. But then I put [Hickman] in an 0-2 hole and then I saw an opportunity. At that point, I settled in there, and I knew I could get the last two guys out. I've been there before and now I'm prepared for it."
Right-hander Josh Advocate picked up his fifth save by fanning three in two hitless innings.
Tyreque Reed, Matt Whatley and Pedro Gonzalez belted solo homers for the Crawdads.