There was a confidence exuding from Mitch Gueller like none he's shown before, and for good reason. Starts like Thursday night's win over Vermont were fewer a far between for the Williamsport Crosscutters pitcher in 2013.
This isn't the same Mitch Gueller who pitched at Bowman Field a year ago, though. This is a more mature and mentally prepared Mitch Gueller.
This is a pitcher who has found the mentality it takes to be a successful professional pitcher, and now his physical talents are beginning to flourish. The beauty of his six innings against the Lake Monsters on Thursday night was that it didn't come easily for the 20-year old right-hander.
There was a grind to the outing. He wasn't on cruise control like he was less than a week before when he threw a four-hit shutout against Auburn in the opener of an Independence Day doubleheader.
A year ago when Gueller was in his first full season of professional baseball and on his way to setting the Crosscutters' single-season record for losses by a pitcher, working through the grind of an outing never would have happened. He just wasn't strong enough mentally to handle such a grind. He admitted as much after Thursday's win.
"Going back to last year, I think that would have happened and I might have checked out," Gueller said. "I kind of learned I have to battle and make a turn-around and go out there and make the next pitch."
Almost a year ago to the day, Gueller allowed four hits and five earned runs in the first inning against Hudson Valley, failing to record an out for the first time in his career. The following day Gueller stood near the home dugout of Bowman Field talking about how that outing and how it snowballed on him. One tough pitch led to another tough pitch which led to another tough pitch which led to a grand slam home run.
Had Thursday's outing against Vermont taken place last year, Gueller likely wouldn't have made it out of the third inning. He allowed five baserunners in that inning, two of which scored. The error with two outs which extended the inning would have likely spelled Gueller's doom.
This isn't the same Mitch Gueller, though. He picked up Jan Hernandez after the error, getting a fly out of the very next batter to end the inning, minimizing the damage at just two runs and allowing his offense the chance to get back into the game.
Gueller finished off his fourth stellar outing in five starts this year by facing just one batter over the minimum in his final three innings. His six-pitch fourth inning, including an inning-ending double play started by Hernandez, allowed him to be able to get through six innings.
Gueller said following the outing he was just a couple pitches away from having a really good outing. My how his standards have changed in a year.
"I wasn't prepared for the mental side of the game last year," Gueller said. "I thought I was, but I wasn't and I didn't have the foundation I needed. It's been fun now and I'm enjoying the game."
There have been physical changes to Gueller's game. First and foremost he's ditched a curveball which was a wasted pitch a year ago for a slider which has quickly become a swing-and-miss pitch. He and pitching coach Aaron Fultz have lengthened his stride, helping him to better control a fastball which has consistently been at 90 mph this year.
The 90 mph average may not appear to be much, but it's a step in the right direction of the inconsistency in his velocity from a year ago when it fluctuated from 86-93. Fultz this year and Cutters manager Nelson Prada last year, said there will be more velocity in Gueller's arm - like the 92-93 he averaged in high school before being drafted - once he gains more confidence in his fastball.
That confidence is slowly coming around for Gueller. He's beginning to consistently spot it on both sides of the plate as he becomes more consistent in his mechanics, mainly the length of his stride to the plate. And when his mechanics become second nature, he'll be able to rear back with extra confidence bringing an average fastball right now to an above average pitch.
And that, coupled with a new slider which has quickly become a lethal weapon, is going to help Gueller rise quickly through the Phillies' prospect lists.
"I thought he threw better than he did in his last start (the shutout against Auburn)," Cutters manager Shawn Williams said. "He was making pitches and his slider is coming around big time. It's a lot of fun to watch."
But it all starts with his mental approach to the game, and the confidence Gueller is exuding. He carries a presence on the mound with him which he sorely lacked a year ago. He works quickly, keeping his defense in the game, and delivering his pitches with confidence.
And he's now competing like he never has before. He's been even better with men on base than he has with the bases empty.
Opponents are hitting .308 against him to lead off an inning. But they're hitting just .143 against him (6 for 42) with runners on base, and a miniscule .080 (2 for 25) with runners in scoring position.
Compare that to last year when opponents hit .321 against him with runners on base and .310 against him with runners in scoring position, and it's obvious he's a more mentally tough pitcher.
His first outing of the year is a perfect example of the gains he's made as a pitcher. He faced runners on base in all four of his innings, and not one of them scored. He stranded the bases loaded in the first, left two on in the second, and stranded a runner in scoring position in the third and fourth innings.
It was by no means as crisp an outing as Gueller would have liked. But he competed like he never has before. He didn't back down from any situation. It built confidence in him like he's never possessed since being drafted 54th overall in 2012. He's carried that confidence with him, and in his last three starts he's allowed just two earned runs, the first time in his career he's had a three-start stretch where he's allowed so few earned runs.
"It's part of growing up, and as you keep playing, you learn how to deal with those things," said Williams, who was a coach with the Crosscutters last year. "I think he's come a long way. Even if they get a run, he keeps going. He's been doing outstanding."
"I feel a lot better than I did last year. I feel more confident," Gueller said. "I'm not so hinged on my last start. I'm able to let those go, good or bad, and move on to the next one. That was yesterday and you can't control that. I feel so much better about myself and everything. It's been fun and it's been positive."
Mitch Rupert covers the Williamsport Crosscutters for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mitch_Rupert.