The way Austin Brice was pitching for Double-A Jacksonville, he didn't need much run support. The Suns offense, which included the starting hurler batting ninth, gave him run support -- and a lot of it -- anyway.
The Marlins' No. 15 prospect set a career high with 13 strikeouts and allowed only one hit and one walk in eight scoreless innings, and the Suns scored 10 runs in the third frame as Jacksonville defeated Biloxi, 12-1, at The Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville on Monday afternoon.
Brice's game score of 92 -- a stat devised by Bill James to measure the quality of an individual start (full explanation here) -- was the highest in the domestic Minor Leagues this season. Only an April 19 start by Arturo Lopez of the Diablos Rojos del Mexico in the Mexican League (9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 9 K) was able to match it. What's more, the gem provided a much-needed bounceback effort for the 23-year-old right-hander, who improved to 3-6 and saw his ERA plummet from 6.37 to 5.61.
The Suns starter's lone hit allowed came in the first inning, when Josh Fellhauer singled to right with one out. He was quickly erased when catcher Chadd Krist caught him trying to steal second. Brice, who has an above-average fastball to go with a curveball and changeup, struck out the next batter, top Brewers prospect Orlando Arcia, and that set off a string of 20 consecutive retired Shuckers.
"Honestly, after the first inning, I can usually tell if it's going to be a long day or not," Brice said. "Today, I could feel that I was really staying behind the ball well right away. My feel for all my pitches today was above-average what it usually is for me, too. So at that point, I just went ahead and rolled with it."
Brice reached 10 strikeouts for just the second time in his career after five innings and needed only 76 pitches to get through seven frames to tie the record for the longest outing of his six-year Minor League career. His walk to Taylor Green with one out in the eighth broke up his run of 20 in a row retired, and a 21-pitch frame forced him to come out after the eighth after throwing 97 total pitches, 67 of which were strikes.
That kind of strike-throwing efficiency was a big reason why the 2010 ninth-rounder was able to have a career outing Monday. He threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 25 batters he faced, and of the 13 strikeouts he collected, 10 required five pitches or fewer. And this, just one start after he walked five in 4 2/3 innings at Chattanooga back on June 19.
"Really, getting the first strike across has been the biggest thing for me this year," Brice said. "I've been focusing on getting ahead of guys, and I was able to do that today. Once I settled in with those, the results kind of came by themselves."
Still as the strikeouts piled up Monday, Brice's teammates realized they didn't have much to do behind him.
"You're trying to keep your rhythm out on the field, but I didn't get my first ball until the first out of the ninth inning," said shortstop J.T. Riddle. "I went eight whole innings without a ball getting to me. You always have to stay ready for anything, but that's a good sign when your pitcher's throwing it like that."
Then again, those same teammates did plenty offensively in a 10-run third inning. Brice, who went 2-for-2 actually started off the inning with a base hit to right field, setting off a string of six straight singles to begin the frame. Ryan Rieger chased Shuckers starter Brooks Hall by walking with the bases loaded, and Zack Cox and Brice did the same against reliever Trevor Seidenberger to give the Suns six runs. Rieger came around to score on an RBI groundout by Kenny Wilson before the big highlight of the inning came. Riddle, playing in his third game with the Suns after a promotion from Class A Advanced Jupiter, clubbed a three-run shot off his fellow southpaw for not only his first Double-A dinger but also his first round-tripper of any kind this season. The three-run shot gave the home team a 10 spot in the third inning.
"Hitting is definitely contagious," said Riddle, who had a .270/.311/.314 line with seven steals in the Florida State League before his promotion. "You see guys put good swings, smoke some line drives, and it just puts that much more confidence in you before you walk up to the plate. You see all these guys get hits ahead of you and think, 'Why can't I be the one to keep this going?'"
The early big frame was especially good for the Suns' psyche after they fell to the Shuckers, 11-1, on Sunday, and Riddle acknowledged as much.
"That's the easy thing with baseball, in that you play every day or almost every day," he said. "Even if you don't have a good day, like we did yesterday losing by 10 runs, you can end up right back here hitting the ball really well. You don't have to wait a week like football. You get to come back and get right back at it."
That message didn't exactly carry over to Brice, who had to wait 10 days between starts before pitching Monday, but that didn't mean he didn't use the extra time to hone his craft. The right-hander said he did extra running drills and tried to stay out in the sun a little more to prepare for what he thought might be a day-game start under a boiling Florida sun. He got 82 and cloudy instead, but given what he showed, he believes he's going to stick to this new routine.
"Nah, I've got to keep up at it now," Brice said. "I adjusted some of my routine, and it definitely seems to have paid off. That's one thing I've realized while I've been here, that, for a lack of better words, I just need to be trying a little bit harder. That little bit harder can mean so much."