Considering how last year played out for right-hander Cody Buckel, his 2014 debut with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans couldn’t have started any more inauspiciously.
A year after losing his control entirely while walking 35 batters over 102/3 innings in a lost season, the once-touted pitching prospect walked the first batter he faced Friday night and then followed with four straight balls to walk the second as well.
By the time he left the mound, though, it had been a thoroughly encouraging outing for Buckel as he bounced back strong to set the tone for a pitching duel between the Pelicans and Salem Red Sox.
The outcome didn’t go in the Pelicans’ favor as Salem broke through in the seventh inning and added a few more late runs for a 4-0 win before an announced crowd of 2,499 at TicketReturn.com Field inside Pelicans Ballpark, but it was nevertheless a positive start for one of the more intriguing players on the Myrtle Beach roster this year.
“I felt really pleased with it,” Buckel said. “Obviously not being in a game for quite some time, it’s a big step forward for me to actually get in a regular-season game and compete again.”
Still only 21 years old and looking to revive his stock as a promising prospect, Buckel allowed just one hit over four scoreless innings while striking out two. He did issue four walks, but he also worked out of jams in the first two innings to keep the game scoreless before handing the ball to the bullpen.
“The first two hitters he walked, but his composure, he maintained it and made adjustments. … That showed me a lot,” Pelicans manager Joe Mikulik said. “He didn’t fall into [thinking], ‘Oh man, whatever.’ He started commanding his pitches better. That was a great plus for us. We saw that in spring training this year, so I thought that was a very big confidence booster for him.”
With runners on first and second and no outs in that opening frame, Buckel responded by striking out Salem’s Carson Blair, getting David Chester to fly out and then retiring Matthew Gedman on a ball back to the mound.
In the second, Salem put runners on first and third with no outs, but Buckel struck out Kevin Heller and catcher Jorge Alfaro threw out a runner at second for two quick outs. Buckel then got Reed Gragnani to line out on a leaping catch by shortstop Hanser Alberto.
Buckel is back with Class A-Advanced Myrtle Beach two years after going 5-3 with a 1.31 ERA for the Pelicans while earning his promotion to Class AA Frisco. That’s where he opened last season – ranked as the Texas Rangers’ eighth-best prospect by Baseball America – before giving up 28 walks and 27 runs (21 earned) in just 91/3 innings.
He was sent down to the Rangers’ rookie ball team on May 5 and would only make two more appearances, both in early August, while finishing the season with an unsightly 21.09 earned-run average. There were no health issues affecting his performance; it was just “straight-up mental,” as he put it.
But he seems to be past that now.
“It was definitely tough. It was something I had never experienced before – just straight-up failure,” Buckel said of last season. “I didn’t really know how to deal with it. It took me quite some time to figure out how to deal with it. What I finally figured out is I shouldn’t fear failure; I should embrace it. That’s the only thing that makes you succeed. There’s a quote by Michael Jordan that says, ‘I failed over and over and over again and that’s why I succeeded.’ That was really motivational and something I used to move forward. Now the fear of failure, I’m not afraid of it anymore.
“Even though tonight my command was not the best it’s been, I still felt calm. I didn’t let it get it to me. Like last year, I’d throw one ball and I’d let it get to me. This year, I put the first two guys on and was like, ‘OK, take a step back.’ … So it was very encouraging to be out there in a game and be able to perform. It wasn’t the prettiest, but hey, I’ll take it.”
As for the rest of the game Friday night, the teams were locked in a scoreless duel through six innings before Salem pushed the first run across with a little help. Ryan Dent drew a one-out walk from reliever Jason Knapp in the seventh and then stole second on a pitch that Mikulik contested was a foul tip.
After Knapp picked up the second out on a groundout, Dent took third on a passed ball charged to Alfaro and then came home to score on a wild pitch just before Knapp got out of the inning on a strikeout of Kevin Heller.
“It was a foul ball, but with a two-man crew it’s tough for those guys,” Mikulik said of the play in question. “It is what it is. It didn’t go our way. In 140 games, that’s the way it’s going to be sometimes.”
The Red Sox then scored three more times in the eighth, including two-run homer to left by Blair to make it 4-0.
Right-hander Williams Cuevas went six scoreless innings for Salem, giving up six hits and no walks to earn the win.
Knapp, another former highly-rated prospect who is looking for his own comeback season after not pitching the last three years, took the loss for Myrtle Beach while throwing just that one inning. His stuff looked good, though, as he hit 94 miles-per-hour on the stadium radar gun.
Lefty reliever Cody Ege was charged with the other three runs while pitching the eighth.
Jonathan Roof, Heller and Gragnani each had two hits for Salem, while left fielder Chris Garia went 2-for-3 for the Pelicans.
The teams continue their season-opening series Saturday night.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.