TACOMA, Wash. — You could hardly design a tougher welcome to Triple-A than the one Danny Hultzen got.
The Bethesda native's first start for the Tacoma Rainers was "one of the worst of my life." That could have something to do with being on three hours' sleep due to the team's travel schedule and pitching at 6,000 feet elevation in Colorado Springs with wildfires visible in the distance — the last game of the series would be scrapped due to the threat.
His second start was his home debut, but it surely didn't feel like one. Most of the sellout crowd was there not to cheer Hultzen, the left-hander the Mariners selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, but the opposing lefty — Jamie Moyer, the 49-year-old former Seattle Mariners stalwart in his first (non-injury) minor league stint since Hultzen was 4 years old.
Through three Triple-A starts, the former University of Virginia star is 1-1 with a 5.25 earned-run average. It's been quite a change for the 22-year-old, who opened his minor-league career by tearing through Double-A like a buzz saw, racking up a 1.19 ERA in 13 starts as opponents batted just .151 against him.
"Whether he's been a little nervous, trying to impress too much, who knows?" Rainiers pitching coach Dwight Bernard said. "Time's going to take care of that. He's a battler, and he's shown he knows how to pitch."
Known for his command — he walked 75 in 320 innings in his UVa. career — Hultzen has had to adjust to a higher level of plate patience at Triple-A. He has walked 12 in 12 innings.
"They're very disciplined," Hultzen said. "They have a good approach, which I've had some trouble adjusting to. The level of competition is unlike anything I've seen. If you throw a pitch three or four inches off the plate, it might as well be in the dirt. They're not going to swing at it. You think you make a good pitch, but you're like, 'How did they not swing at that?' I'm not used to this."
But adjustment is everything in baseball, and Hultzen has been called upon to do a lot of adjusting since being drafted last June. First, there was becoming a multimillionaire — in August he signed a five-year contract worth a reported $10.6 million, including a $6.25 million signing bonus.
After working out at Virginia and with trainers in Florida, Hultzen participated in the Arizona Fall League, going 1-0 with a 1.40 ERA in six starts and being tapped to start the league's all-star game. He participated in big-league camp with the Mariners and was assigned to Double-A Jackson to start the season, an indication the organization feels he's on a fast track and mature enough to handle it. The Pirates' Gerrit Cole, a UCLA alum and the player taken ahead of Hultzen in the draft, opened at Class A.
Hultzen ranked fifth — one spot ahead of Cole — in Baseball America's midseason list of the top 50 prospects in the minors, released Thursday.
"He's a down-to-earth kid with a lot of expectations from the media, and that goes along with being our first pick," Daren Brown, the Rainiers' manager, said of Hultzen. "He came here with a lot of fanfare, but I think he's handled it real well. Things haven't gone like we wanted them to go, but from the first outing, getting the jitters out, for a kid in his first year of professional baseball I think he's handled it real well."
A star student as well as a star athlete at Virginia, Hultzen's smart approach and cool head are as much key to his future as his top-shelf change-up. Ask him about his goals for the rest of 2012, and he talks not of what he hopes to accomplish but of how hard he wants to work.
"You can't control where the ball goes, but you can control your effort," he said. "That's something they preached to me at UVa. and that's something I've kept with me throughout."
Next up for Hultzen is the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday in Kansas City, a major showcase for top prospects. After that, it's back to Tacoma to work on figuring out Triple-A hitters while he waits for the call to drive 36 miles up Interstate 5 to Safeco Field. Given the sorry state of the Mariners, it will be stunning if they don't give Hultzen a shot in September, if not before.
"Don't get me wrong, it's a huge honor that people think of me like that, but I know my job right now is to pitch here," he said. "The big leagues, if it happens it will happen later. I have to control the things I can control now for that to happen."
"His demeanor, the way he's carried himself — he pitched at a big-time college, the College World Series," Bernard said. "What he's going through right now is just a different part of the process, but he'll be ready if that's what the Mariners choose to do."