It’s been a busy season for Durham Bulls pitchers Jaime Schultz and Austin Pruitt: the the Bulls’ two most frequent starters rank second and fourth, respectively, in the Triple-A International League in strikeouts.
In between starts, however, the pair of 2013 MLB draft picks and longtime teammates make time for more playful fun.
“Sometimes I’ll come up here and drop my dog off at Austin’s apartment,” Schultz said. “He’ll play with him and we’ll hang out.”
Amidst the Bulls’ struggles this season, Schultz, 25, and Pruitt, 26, have proved a model of consistency on and off the mound, their competitive personalities and close friendship combining to provide much-needed stability to the team’s pitching corps.
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The pair first met in summer 2014 with the Charlotte (Fla.) Stone Crabs, when Schultz pitched five scoreless innings in his Advanced-A debut on August 6 and, three days later, Pruitt went six innings in his 22nd appearance of the season.
They were promoted together to the Double-A Montgomery (Ala.) Biscuits for the 2015 season, eventually topping the Biscuits’ innings pitched leaderboard, ranking among the top six in the Southern League in strikeouts and combining for a 19-12 record.
Now they’re experiencing similar success for a Bulls team tasked with replacing almost its entire pitching corps from a year ago – just one of 19 pitchers with double-digit appearances in 2015 remains on the roster.
As of Friday, Pruitt (7-5, 2.90 ERA) leads all regular Bulls starters in wins and ERA, having allowed three or fewer runs in 15 of his 18 starts this season. He represented the IL in Tuesday’s Triple-A All-Star Game, tossing a scoreless fifth inning and earning the win.
He credits the mentorship of the Bulls’ veteran catchers, J.P. Arencibia and now-promoted Luke Maile, with helping him adjust and then excel at the Triple-A level.
“I wouldn’t be where I’m at without them,” Pruitt said. “Being around them, you learn a little bit more about the game. It helps you out there with mound presence, kind of keeping yourself in line – respecting the game, respecting the hitter.”
Schultz (5-4, 3.43 ERA) ranks right behind Pruitt in a number of categories and has allowed just eight earned runs over his last five starts. His walks-per-inning rate is down to 0.44 from 0.67, as well, after struggling with control issues last year.
“One of the goals I had this year was definitely cut back on my walks, and so far I’m not exactly where I want to be, but it’s definitely gone down,” he said.
Over the past two years, they’ve developed a close bond outside the ballpark, as well.
“Me and ‘Schultzy’, we’re pretty good buds,” Pruitt said. “Every time I see him, we give each other a pretty big hug.”
Every time I saw ‘Schultzy’ do well, it made me want to do that much better, and vice versa – if he sees me do well, I’m sure he wants to go out there and push himself, too.
Durham pitching coach Kyle Snyder has been faced with a difficult task this season: the Bulls have already had 31 different players make appearances on the mound, and top ace Blake Snell – the top-ranked prospect in the Rays’ system entering the year – was promoted to Tampa Bay on June 16.
Although ninth-ranked prospect Jacob Faria was moved up from Double-A on June 25 and has shined so far (0.60 ERA in 3 starts), Snyder has relied on Pruitt and Schultz, neither of whom are ranked among the top 15, to be the stalwarts of his rotation.
“They’ve taken big steps forward in regards to their development and they’ve been very consistent starters in their first year in Triple-A,” Snyder said. “We all have our capabilities and limitations, but...they’ve done a good job refining some of those capabilities and understanding who they are as pitchers and putting their stuff to work appropriately.”
Every single start by one of the two pitchers this season has directly preceded a start by the other one the following day. On July 3, for example, Pruitt allowed four hits and one run in his start against the Norfolk Tides; on July 4, Schultz proceeded to also allow four hits and one run in his start against the Syracuse Chiefs.
Snyder said he’s noticed the chemistry and competitiveness among Pruitt and Schultz motivating them both – a sentiment echoed by Pruitt himself.
“Every time I saw ‘Schultzy’ do well, it made me want to do that much better, and vice versa – if he sees me do well, I’m sure he wants to go out there and push himself too,” Pruitt said.
When they’re not manning the mound at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, they’re often side-by-side along the bullpen fence, watching a Bulls team that, as of Friday, is 19-38 when they don’t start and 21-15 when they do.
Snyder said he thinks both can develop into “long-term starters at the major-league level,” but neither Schultz nor Pruitt are bullish about their call-up chances this year.
In the meantime, the Bulls will continue to rely on the duo’s consistency within an otherwise turbulent season – and Schultz’s Australian shepherd will continue to enjoy the extra playtime.