In his first four starts this season, right-hander Logan Jernigan, the Padres' 15th-round selection in this year's Draft, earned a 3-0 record behind a sparkling 0.73 ERA. He averaged a hair under six innings per start, which was a welcome development, considering he frequently struggled to get through four innings as a sophomore in 2013.
That wasn't because he got knocked around -- he logged a 1.56 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 34 2/3 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .187 batting average in 2013. But he also walked 28 batters for an alarmingly high 7.4 walks per nine innings.
In one especially poor outing against UNC-Greensboro that season, Jernigan walked four hitters and lasted just two-thirds of an inning. To make matters worse, he took out his frustration on a wall in the locker room and ended up breaking a bone in his pitching hand, causing him to miss five weeks.
But Jernigan turned what could have been a disaster into a learning experience, as he ended up serving as NC State's Game 2 starter in the College World Series, where he faced eventual NCAA champion UCLA and was the hard-luck loser in a 2-1 defeat.
"It gave me some time to get away from baseball and kind of get my feet back under me," Jernigan said. "I tried to look at the mental part of the game and tried to find ways to get strong mentally, which I feel like is the biggest part of the game with pitching."
Jernigan is a Southern boy at heart, from rural Johnston County in North Carolina. He says he hasn't been practicing any alternative mental exercises to clear his mind or even changed his pregame routine. But whatever Jernigan did during his time off to get himself focused, it seemed to carry over into 2014.
Over the first 23 2/3 innings of his junior year, opponents were still batting just .160 against him. But the big change came in his control, as he allowed 11 walks while still sporting a healthy K/9 rate of 8.1.
"The biggest thing I thought that led to that success was throwing a lot of first-pitch strikes and getting a lot of first pitch outs," Jernigan said. "I wouldn't say I was pitching to contact, but I was going after guys."
With a mid-90s fastball, a plus curveball and a developing changeup, Jernigan looked like a legitimate early-round pick. He ended up fading a bit as the season went on, finishing with 3.90 ERA in 16 starts, and his Draft status faded a bit, too.
But Jernigan kept the Wolfpack in games and ended up with a 6-3 record. And while his 5.9 BB/9 rate wasn't going to earn him comparisons to Greg Maddux, it was a stark improvement from the past.
The Padres think he has even more room to grow -- perhaps as a flamethrowing reliever, where his inconsistent control would be less of an issue.
"It's tough to sustain your stuff for every start, whether it be in college or up in the Majors," said Chad MacDonald, Padres assistant GM of player personnel. "We like his makeup, we like his arm strength. ... We take a couple guys who were starters for their clubs, and all of a sudden you move them to the bullpen and their stuff plays up a little bit."
Jernigan thinks part of his early-season success came from getting ahead in the count and generating first-pitch outs, letting his fielders do the work as he pitched deeper into games.
But for now, he doesn't care about how he elicits outs. He just wants to learn how to command all his pitches for strikes -- including a cutter he's integrated into his repertoire over the last year. And for a 6-foot-3 pitcher, whose height makes it that much harder for batters to pick up on his imposing heater, that addition might be enough to make him an effective reliever.
"I don't think about trying to strike people out or trying to pitch to contact," Jernigan said. "I just try to get after guys."