Marco Gonzales has been healthy for weeks. He just needed to believe it.
The left-hander found some reasons to believe on Tuesday night, letting loose for six strong innings in Triple-A Memphis' 5-0 blanking of Omaha at Werner Park.
Gonzales, the Cardinals' fourth-ranked prospect, allowed two hits and three walks while striking out three. He'd scuffled in his previous three starts, giving up 11 earned runs on 19 hits over 15 1/3 innings.
"The biggest difference from the last few starts was my fastball command. I was throwing it really well on both sides of the plate [tonight]," he said. "My sinker was working, too, and I kept guys off-balance."
Trusting that his shoulder, which sidelined him for three weeks earlier this season, was capable of handling the rigors of high-level pitching, was just as important. Gonzales threw a bullpen session at full speed heading in to this start and knew he was 100 percent healthy.
"It's more mental than anything else. I trust in myself and my shoulder," he said. "This past week has shown me I can kick it up to another level with no restrictions."
Facing the top of the the Storm Chasers lineup to start the sixth, Gonzales walked leadoff man Whit Merrifield. But he fielded Reymond Fuentes' bunt barehanded for the first out.
"I surprised myself with that play. I don't know what happened. I kind of blacked out during it," Gonzales said. "My teammates said it was athletic, which is a huge compliment as a pitcher."
After Merrifield stole third, Gonzales was extra cautious with Royals No. 11 prospect Cheslor Cuthbert, not wanting to allow even a sacrifice fly that would have broken a scoreless tie. Cuthbert ended up walking for the second time.
Gonzales was at 94 pitches and Memphis manager Mike Shildt paid him a visit. He also gathered the infielders to remind them of their responsibilities on a ground ball, which is what he hoped Gonzales would induce. The 23-year-old Colorado native got ahead with a changeup, a pitch that was effective all night, then threw another that faded down and away from the right-handed-hitting Jose Martinez. It produced a roller to second baseman Dean Anna, who tagged Cuthbert and threw to first for an inning-ending double play.
"I was pumped about the defense tonight," Gonzales said. "We made some great plays and that was one of them, for sure."
That Omaha starter J.C. Sulbaran was also posting zeros only motivated Gonzales.
"You want to battle and give your team a chance. I tried to be a positive influence in the dugout," he said.
Gonzales left a scoreless game and the Redbirds broke through with a run in the eighth on an RBI groundout by Cardinals No. 24 prospect Tommy Pham, then added four in the ninth. Heath Wyatt, Miguel Socolovich and Sam Tuivailala finished off Memphis' 12th shutout of the season, one behind New Orleans for the Pacific Coast League lead.
Gonzales, a 2013 first-round pick, reached the Majors last year, making five starts and five relief appearances. He impressed enough to make the postseason roster and appeared in six playoff games. He's pitched at three levels this year, posting a 6.39 ERA with Memphis heading into Tuesday's start.
"Many of the veterans here have been in the big leagues. The hitters are thinking the game along with you, working counts," he said.
Andrew Kahn is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewKahn.