LAKEWOOD, N.J. — Will Stewart set a modest goal for his first full season in pro ball. Quite simply, he wanted to complete six innings in as many starts as possible.
In his wildest fantasy, he never imagine starting an all-star game.
But when the South Atlantic League All-Stars gather Tuesday in Greensboro, N.C., Stewart will be the first pitcher to take the ball for the Northern Division after a dreamy first half of the season. In 11 starts for Lakewood, the Phillies' low-A affiliate, the 20-year-old lefthander is 6-0 with a 1.13 ERA, 60 strikeouts and only nine walks in 71 2/3 innings.
Not bad for a 20th-round draft pick who doubted he was capable of such dominance.
"I've surprised myself at how well I'm doing," Stewart said before a game this week at FirstEnergy Park. "This offseason I put in a lot of work. Coming out and seeing my hard work has actually paid off is pretty big. And it's pleasantly surprising."
A finesse pitcher who doesn't set the radar gun ablaze with overpowering stuff, Stewart has achieved his six-inning goal in all but one of his starts despite never throwing more than 100 pitches in an outing. But he also has allowed more than two earned runs only one time.
In his latest gem Wednesday night, Stewart tossed seven scoreless innings against Hagerstown. On May 30, he struck out 10 batters in a three-hit shutout, one of only two complete games in the league so far this season. He has given up a grand total of three earned runs in his last six starts.
Stewart chalks up his success to two factors: improved command of his fastball and better first innings. He got into too much trouble early in games last year en route to a 4.18 ERA in 13 starts for short-season Williamsport, so much so that he now says "if I can make it a clean first inning, I think it's going to be a good day."
But there's something else at play. Stewart might only now be realizing how good he is.
"Us low-round guys, we have to fight and we have to claw," Stewart said. "You definitely have to go out and do some crazy stuff [to get noticed]. You have to be that guy that's outworking everyone every minute of the day. You have to put up some good numbers and be 'The Guy.' "
Until this season, Stewart's numbers hardly stood out. After getting drafted in 2015, he posted a 4.79 ERA in 12 relief appearances in rookie ball. He repeated that level in 2016 and lowered his ERA only to 4.06. In his 13 starts for Williamsport last year he got through the sixth inning only once — in his second-to-last start of the season.
So, regardless of how many times he heard from coaches and Phillies officials that they believed in him, it took getting better results for Stewart to have faith in his own ability.
"He wasn't a talked-about guy, so to speak, when we started the season," Lakewood manager Marty Malloy said. "With Stewey, I would have to say confidence is a big booster. He got off to a good, good start and took it into the next start and the next start, right on down the line. He pitches. He doesn't give in. He may give up a hit or two here or there, but it doesn't change what he's doing. It doesn't change his approach."
With the way his dream season is going, Stewart isn't about to change anything. Likewise, he won't spend much time thinking about a possible promotion to high-A Clearwater or the fact that his stock in the organization is clearly rising.
"I'm just trying to be Will," Stewart said. "Last year, I tried to be other people, I tried to do other things, and it got away from me. I'm having fun. I'm sure I would love to have fun in Clearwater. If that's in the cards, I'm good with that. If not, I'm also OK."