Jason Rakers made sure Daron Kirkreit knew the bar had been set high. When Rakers made a one-time start for the Buffalo Bisons July 13 against Omaha, he tossed seven shutout innings in a 4-0 victory.
Kirkreit's turn for a one-shot appearance with the pitching-depleted Herd came Sunday. Rakers, now at Double-A Akron, was having a great year at Class A Kinston when he got his chance in North AmeriCare Park. Kirkreit, a No. 1 draft pick in 1993 on the road back from rotator cuff surgery, was having a miserable time at Akron. He was 2-7 with a 7.48 earned run average as a starter.
"I was joking with Rakers that I had a tough act to follow," Kirkreit said. "I knew what he had done here."
Not to worry. Kirkreit equaled Rakers' seven shutout innings and it meant a complete game as the Herd blanked Nashville, 3-0, to earn a crucial doubleheader split before a crowd of 12,656. The Sounds took the opener in eight innings, 3-2.
The teams split their four-game series, keeping Buffalo 5 1/2 games in front of the Sounds in the American Association East.
Kirkreit tossed a sparkling three-hitter in his Triple-A debut, allowing only four runners to reach base. It was the first shutout of the right-hander's five professional seasons.
Kirkreit, a 6-foot-6, 225-pounder who was a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team, had surgery on Aug. 22, 1995. He began his comeback with six appearances last August at Kinston and got his third crack at Double-A this year.
It didn't go well until he was shipped to the bullpen in late June. There, he went 3-0, 1.62 and that confidence carried over Sunday.
"You don't have a lot of time to get prepared down there," said Kirkreit, 24. "You just basically have to go on pure ability."
Buffalo catcher Steve Soliz had caught Kirkreit from 1993-1995 at three levels of the Indians' farm system. He noticed in the bullpen that Kirkreit's sinker had good bite and that was borne out as Nashville had 13 ground-ball outs.
"I can tell his mechanics are back to what they were," Soliz said. "He's locating the ball a lot better then he had right after surgery. He doesn't have the pop on his fastball that he did before and his slider is not quite as sharp but he's getting the pitches to do what they're meant to do."
Manager Brian Graham was equally impressed.
"When Soliz set up for a pitch inside, Kirkreit followed the glove," Graham said. "When Soliz set up outside, Kirkreit followed the glove. He didn't overpower anybody. He just pitched and Soliz called a great game."
Richie Sexson's two-run homer in the fourth provided the bulk of the offense and Kirkreit needed just 1 hour, 32 minutes to muffle the Sounds.
"It was a quick little mini-road trip for me," said a smiling Kirkreit, who will be back in Akron today. "Drive three hours, pitch as well as I can and drive back."
It was also a badly needed outing after a disappointing loss in the opener. Torey Lovullo's RBI single in the bottom of the seventh forced extra innings, but Nashville won it in the eighth on Carmine Cappuccio's sacrifice fly to shallow right. Alex Ramirez had a strong chance to nail Greg Norton at home, but uncorked a throw 15 feet up the third-base line as Norton scored.
Scheduled starter Roland DeLaMaza was in California attending to family business and his flight back to Buffalo was delayed, so he didn't arrive at the ballpark in time to make his start. Graham thus inserted Marcus Moore on three days rest and got 7 1/3 innings from him. Moore (2-2) allowed a two-run homer to Norton in the first, but kept the Sounds at bay until the fateful eighth.
Kirkreit then rescued the Herd, getting a win even though Nashville's Mike Bertotti matched his three-hitter.
"That's a big, big win for us and he doesn't know that," Soliz said. "They (the Sounds) really felt like they wanted to win at least three out of four to get some momentum against us. It was important to get a split."