After pitching 53.1 innings as a professional last year – coming on the heels of a long season with Point Loma, Mike Ekstrom threw 167.2 frames this season for the Fort Wayne Wizards.
A 12th round selection by San Diego in 2004, Ekstrom was a driving force behind the Wizards playoff push in the first half of the year. In the middle of June, Ekstrom was 9-1, holding the opposition to two runs or less in 11 of his 14 starts.
At the end of May, after ten starts, Ekstrom's ERA was a slim 1.45 and the opposition was hitting just .212 off him.
Ekstrom maintains consistency in his mechanics and has a repeatable delivery with a good line to the plate. With his arsenal and steady approach he is able to get through a lineup with ease on the first go-round.
There was talk initially of a promotion but the Padres brass wanted to see the 21-year old right-hander who looks like he is 16, he turned 22 on August 30, maintain his aggressive attitude through the season.
With a fastball that reaches 92 and has late sink, coupled with a slider and above average changeup, Ekstrom has smoothly transitioned from college reliever to professional starter. It wasn't until his final year at Point Loma that he took the hill as a starter, threw nearly 200 innings for the year, but the Padres liked what they saw, keeping him in that role.
"I saw him and his fastball would hit 87, 88 maybe bump 90," Scouting Director Bill Gayton said. "I took out the gun on him in the fifth and he was hitting 90-93 - his velocity took a big jump!"
One thing the Padres want to see, and this is global throughout the minors, is Ekstrom throwing the changeup more often.
It was understandable when Ekstrom confessed he was tired and not making his pitches late in the year.
"He has a three-pitch mix that is interesting to me," added Gayton. "Key is to use his changeup more. Good change if he learns to throw it more. He keeps coming hard versus mixing in the change. He is setup to use it and then came back hard."
He ended the year with a 13-6 record and a 3.70 ERA, losing three straight games to close out the year. The year was, however, a success. He struck out 112 and walked just 36 while keeping the opposition to a .257 average against. With runners in scoring position (RISP), batters hit .246 off him and that number dipped to .188 with RISP and two outs.
He did have a couple of bumps along his road. When he did give up runs, he was usually pounded. Of his 18 stars, he allowed six runs or more on seven occasions. But 17 times he surrendered two runs or less. It was all or nothing with no in between.
Moving forward, Ekstrom will face a stiff challenge in the California League. But the righty isn't flustered.
"I want to make all my starts again and I'd like to average six innings a start," said Ekstrom. "That was kind of a goal for this year. You can't really control promotions- I've figured that out – so just have a quality year regardless of where I'm at and I just want to keep building on what I've already done. Just keep moving forward."
Stamina will be a big issue that Ekstrom works on this coming season. The year before, when he made two ugly starts in Fort Wayne, it was to be expected. Now, however, the Padres expect him to be in shape for the long haul. It will go a long way in determining his future prospect status because the Padres believe he has the stuff to take him to the next level.