Entering 2015, Colin Rea had pitched past six innings in only one professional start. This year, he's become well acquainted with the seventh. On Saturday night in San Antonio, he introduced himself to the eighth.
Rea struck out a career-high 12 batters while allowing one hit and one walk over eight innings in Double-A San Antonio's 3-0 shutout of Midland.
The longest outing of the Missions right-hander's career came against a powerful RockHounds lineup which included five A's prospects ranked in MLB.com's Top 30. He attributed that success to a basic but crucial element of any good start: fastball command.
"I think even from when I started warming up, I felt like I had a pretty good fastball in the bullpen before the game," Rea said. "We really wanted to get back to being fastball-dominant and not only throwing in and out but up and down with the fastball. I felt like we did a good job of doing that earlier, and then I was able to work my curveball off that to keep them off balance and keep them guessing."
Rea (1-1) allowed the only baserunners of his night in the first inning. After striking out Chad Oberacker and Colin Walsh, Chad Pinder lined a single into center field and top A's prospect Matt Olson followed with a walk. The next 22 batters went down in order, including Josh Whitaker on a called strike three to start the perfect run.
"I like to make it a point that I can throw my breaking ball for a strike even early in the game just to keep them guessing," the Indiana State product said. "I felt like my fastball was good enough the first time through the order that I didn't really need to throw too many breaking balls. Once they started timing up my fastball, that's when we started throwing more breakers."
That mix helped Rea fool RockHounds hitters throughout the night. He struck out two batters in the second, third and sixth frames before fanning the side in the seventh. His previous career strikeout high of nine was last set on Aug. 31, 2014 with Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore. He also has continued to top his career mark for longest outing this season. The previous best was 6 1/3 innings on May 26, 2012 with Class A Fort Wayne. In sharp contrast, his shortest outing to date this year was 6 2/3 frames April 16 vs. Tulsa.
"I'm glad that they believe in me to keep throwing me out there every inning," he said. "Getting in a good rhythm is really what I think has helped me, making pitches when I need to. I was behind in the count at times, but I made quality pitches 2-1, 2-0, 3-1 to get me back in the count."
Two big swings put the Missions in front for good in the third. Jason Hagerty led off the frame with a home run to right field, and No. 3 Padres prospect Trea Turner followed four batters later with a two-run shot to left.
"[Turner's] knowledge of the game, you can just tell, is far and away better than most guys that are in their first full year of professional baseball," Rea said. "He has an advantage in that part of the game already. His hand-eye coordination is unbelievable. He'll be on a curveball one night, fastball the next night, slider the next. There are not too many pitches that you can get past him.
"He's got a lot of tools on top of his knowledge of the game to make him that much better."
With the lead, Rea set about the business of making it hold up.
"I just wanted to make a point to put a stop to them after that three-run inning we had and put up a zero in the fourth," he said.
The victory gave the Missions their first three-game winning streak of 2015.
Midland starter Nate Long (0-1) matched Rea's eight innings, but was charged with three runs on four hits.