John Lamb was as surprised as anybody when he was told he was going to Triple-A Omaha from Single-A Wilmington this week - especially knowing that his numbers in Wilmington weren't all that hot.
"I was caught off guard," he said after his first start for Omaha on Thursday night in which he gave up five earned runs on six hits and two walks, striking out five in five innings of work in a 6-1 loss to the Fresno Grizzlies. "I was excited at the same time. I would have expected to go back to [Double-A NW] Arkansas, but I'm thrilled to be here."
In 19 starts for Wilmington, Lamb was 4-12 with a 5.63 ERA. The 23-year-old lefty lost his last eight decisions, picking up his last win on May 28. But his last few starts - especially his last one August 10 at home against Lynchburg - caught the Royals attention. He tossed seven shutout innings, giving up just three hits while striking out six en route to a no decision.
Lamb spent 2012 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and his return to the game hasn't been all he had hoped before he went down in 2011. He was the 2009 Idaho Falls Pitcher of the Year, a 2010 Baseball America Minor League First-Team All-Star selection and the 2010 Paul Splittorff Award winner.
But that was before the injury - a time in which Baseball America says he was the Royals best pitching prospect and a half-season away from a big league call up. His fastball topped out at 95 mph before the injury. On Thursday night in Omaha, it topped out at 89, and mostly ranged from 86-88 early and dropped to 84-85 by the time he exited the game. He admits to being worried about his lack of velocity.
"For the first three months of the year, I was worried, to be honest, just not knowing if it was ever going to come back," Lamb said.
It's anybody's guess as to whether it will indeed ever return.
"His fastball isn't back yet, but it comes down to command," said Omaha manager Mike Jirschele. "His off-speed stuff makes his fastball look even better, even though his velocity is not back yet."
Lamb didn't make any starts in Wilmington between June 8 and July 5, saying he was experiencing various general symptoms, so he took some time to rest and then made some changes to his delivery. He liked what he saw when he came back.
"Some life was added to the fastball, so I'm encouraged by it. I'm not overwhelmed by it positively or negatively. But moving forward, it's encouraging that my arm is working more like it used to."
He added a slider in early July and is depending on it more than his curve ball, at least for now, saying it wasn't working for him. As he continues to tweak his game, he was encouraged by his last few starts in Wilmington.
"I thought the last four starts I made before tonight was the best I've been throwing the ball, post surgery," Lamb said. He was 0-3 in those starts, but he had a 3.46 ERA. "Even going back into my healthy days, I thought that was the best command and the best pitches I brought to the table each night out."
Unfortunately, his slider wasn't working for him Thursday night. He left it, as well as his change-up, up in the zone, especially in the first inning. He threw 31 pitches that inning and the Grizzlies sent nine men to the plate, scoring four runs.
"My slider is a work in progress," Lamb said. "I'm just trying to stay aggressive with it. I have no painful symptoms in my arm. But without a doubt, my breaking pitch was flat tonight and that's something I'll be working on the next few days."
The good news is, he only gave up one run over the next four innings.
"I thought he was a little nervous the first inning," Jirschele said. "He just made a few bad pitches up in the zone, but I thought he settled in and did a nice job [after that]."