Mike Franco entered the season with just four starts on his record in 81 previous appearances, but he's become the bedrock of Double-A Montgomery's rotation.On Sunday, the Rays right-hander allowed just two hits and walked three in seven scoreless innings in the Biscuits' 2-1 victory over Mississippi at Riverwalk Stadium.
Mike Franco entered the season with just four starts on his record in 81 previous appearances, but he's become the bedrock of Double-A Montgomery's rotation.
On Sunday, the Rays right-hander allowed just two hits and walked three in seven scoreless innings in the Biscuits' 2-1 victory over Mississippi at Riverwalk Stadium. Franco struck out seven in the start and lowered his season ERA to 0.52 spanning 17 1/3 innings in his first season in the Southern League.
"I had my changeup going today and I was able to throw it for a ball and for a strike, early and late in counts," Franco said. "That was really kind of a game-changer for me, and then just locating the fastball."
The converted reliever has noted the differences between starting and coming in from the bullpen. Having some freedom to pitch in situations where the game isn't on the line has allowed Franco to refine his approach.
"I just trusted my defense and let the hitters put the ball in play. I feel confident throwing all my pitches for strikes and getting ahead early and it's been working out," Franco said. "I'm just letting my defense play and they've been making some really great plays behind me.
"Coming out as a reliever the past couple years has kind of been hard to get out there and really establish the strike zone. You just got to go out there and throw strikes."
Franco ran into trouble early in his start when Luis Valenzuela doubled with one out in the first inning. The Texas native rebounded with strikeouts of No. 9 Braves prospectTravis Demeritte and Carlos Franco.
The seven whiffs matched a career high in a single outing for Franco. His only other seven-strikeout performance came in a three-inning relief appearance with Class A Advanced Charlotte last May. Operating with a little more wiggle room this season has given the 25-year-old the opportunity to set himself up for more punchouts.
"I had a couple guys strike out on sliders and I had a couple guys strike out on changeups. Fastball, that was my establishing pitch," Franco said. "I'm getting ahead early and throwing everything for a strike. I'm able to throw everything late in the count and late in the ballgame, and that's been helping me get more strikeouts."
The 2014 seventh-round pick retired 12 consecutive Braves, starting with Valenzuela for the second out of the third and ending on a groundout by Mississippi's Franco to lead off the seventh.
"It's always fun to be able to go out there and pitch into the seventh inning," Franco said. "Being able to be a starter now [is] awesome because I'm able to stay in there longer and just throwing later in the ballgame to try and get my team to win ballgames."
The Florida International product brought lessons from the bullpen to the rotation with him.
"I'd come in with the game close or we'll be up by one, so I always had to be in the mentality of 'get ahead and pound the zone,'" Franco said. "Now I'm also capable of being able to pitch out of the zone. That's helped me a lot where I'm throwing a lot of balls to help set up the strikes that I'm throwing as well."
Connor Lien spoiled Franco's chance at a victory with a game-tying homer off righty Ian Gibaut to lead off the eighth.
Justin Williams singled and Grant Kay doubled with one out for Montgomery in the bottom of the frame and Nathan Lukes plated Williams with a sacrifice fly. Diego Castillo pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to seal the win for the Biscuits.
Williams, the Rays No. 10 prospect, went 3-for-4 with a pair of runs scored, raising his average to .317.
Gerard Gilberto is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @GerardGilberto4.