STAR WARS NIGHT at Greenville’s Fluor Field invited pithy comparisons between players and various forces of good and evil.
On a flawless Saturday evening, Al Yankovic serenaded 5,801 fans with a riff on “The Day The Music Died” that pondered the fateful turns of a young Anakin Skywalker. When he wasn’t Force-choking a Greenville Drive intern, Darth Vader showed he had some dance moves.
And if the dubious mugs of Lexington Legends hitters flashing on the scoreboard were to be taken on a Jedi’s honor, Greenville starting pitcher Cody Kukuk more than held his own against a wretched hive of scum and villainy.
Kukuk, 21, was an All-State performer for Lawrence (Kan.) Free State High. He turned down a hometown scholarship offer from Kansas in favor of an above-slot $800,000 signing bonus after Boston drafted him in the seventh round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft.
Saturday, he toyed with the Legends during the course of six scoreless innings, allowing two hits and striking out five. Greenville won 5-1 as Kukuk improved to 3-0 and lowered his earned run average to 1.88.
In 24 innings this season, he has permitted 18 hits and 12 walks while fanning 29. It’s that walk total that is turning heads. In a vacuum, the number is ordinary, but when taken in the context of growth, it’s extraordinary.
Kukuk arrived in Greenville last year riding high organizational expectations, but struggles with command scuttled his season. In 101 innings, Kukuk walked more batters (81) than he struck out (77). Of equal concern was how Kukuk seemingly responded whenever control evaded him. The result was a 4-13 record, a 4.63 ERA and a return ticket to the South Atlantic League to start the 2014 season.
Saturday, Kukuk walked a season-high four batters, but he responded magnificently to the adversity, fanning the next batter three out of four times and coaxing a popup to short in the other at-bat.
“The difference between my walks last year and this year is I’m more around the zone and I don’t really let it get to me,” Kukuk said. “I just keep doing what I’m doing and correcting anything I feel in the game, which has helped me a lot.”
Kukuk went on to say his mechanics have improved thanks to an emphasis on getting his arm slot in the same position for each pitch.
Greenville manager Darren Fenster was not with the team during Kukuk’s 2013 struggles, but the pitcher he sees now has the look of a stopper.
“He’s been what he’s been all year,” Fenster said. “He was crisp out of the gate. In a couple of previous starts, he has taken the first inning to get his rhythm, to get his feel, then kind of gets into a nice groove. Tonight, he was on point from the first pitch to his last.”
It is interesting to note Kukuk threw just 52 of 90 pitches for strikes, but never found himself particularly taxed by Lexington. Kukuk has a mid-90s fastball, but remained between 90-93 while getting outs with his 79-81 mph changeup and a rapidly evolving mid-80s slider.
“Yeah, it’s caught up definitely, for sure,” Kukuk said when asked if his slider had improved. “The three pitches I throw – fastball, changeup, slider – I feel they’re all equal right now. I went to my slider tonight more than my changeup. It’s usually the other way around. It’s good to be able to do that.”
The Force always has been strong with this one. Even when struggling in 2013, the opposition batted just .197 against Kukuk. If the improved command displayed during the first month can carry through the season’s first half, Kukuk should be on his way to join the rebel alliance in Salem.
“You’ve got a lefthanded fastball in the mid-90s, which obviously doesn’t grow on trees and I think right now his changeup is a true swing-and-miss pitch,” Fenster said. “These guys are in low-A and they’re going to continue to fine-tune things here. Where they really need to work is getting locked in on command and continuing to just develop in all facets of the game. Cody has done that in the year he has been here.”
Other developments of note Saturday in Greenville:
— Carlos Asuaje, a 2013 11th-round pick, went 2-for-4 with a double to the deepest part of center field in Flour Field’s replica of Fenway Park. Sunday, he went 2-for-3 with another double and is now batting .379.
“He’s giving us consistent at-bats, probably the most consistent guy all year,” Fenster said. “He’s locked in to the point where he doesn’t give the pitch away.”
Asuaje has been as locked in at the plate as Kukuk has been on the mound, according to Fenster. The Greenville manager spoke of a recent 11-3 loss against Charleston that stood out as an example of Asuaje’s focus.
“It was a game where we got beat pretty good and he’s hitting in the ninth inning, a cold night, down (eight) runs and he’s as locked in during that at-bat as he was a couple of nights earlier when he had the game-winning hit in extra innings,” Fenster said. “That’s a quality trait that is going to take him pretty far.”
— Greenville features one of the youngest up-the-middle ensembles in the South Atlantic League. Second baseman Wendell Rijo won’t turn 19 until Sept. 4. Shortstop Tzu-Wei Lin turned 20 in February and center fielder Manuel Margot will not turn 20 until Sept. 28.
All three are holding their own so far. Rijo entered Monday’s games batting .322 with five doubles and two home runs. Margot improved his batting average by 40 points over the weekend and is at .274 with four doubles and three homers. Lin is batting .250 while playing exceptional defense.
— Thanks to Kukuk’s dominant performance, there were few highlights for Lexington. Reliever Luis Rico was an exception.
Rico, a free-agent signee out of Venezuela, walked the first batter he faced, but retired 14 of the next 16 he faced. The lefthander struck out the side in the fifth and finished with six in 4.2 innings. Rico’s fastball topped out in the mid-80s, but he did his damage by spotting it inside, particularly against lefthanded hitters.