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Back on track in AFL, Appel looking forward to '15

Righty aiming to prove he belongs in Houston after setbacks this year

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It's been more than eight months since Mark Appel underwent an appendectomy, a procedure that pretty much cost him a chance to pitch in Spring Training and set the 2013 No. 1 overall Draft pick on course for a strange and frustrating season.

Appel was roughed up on the field at Class A Lancaster and struggled with confidence issues -- and was sent to extended spring camp for a month -- though he ended the season with some promising outings at Double-A Corpus Christi. The grind of a long year will soon come to an end when Appel leaves the Arizona Fall League next week and returns to Houston for some much-needed rest.

The 23-year-old right-hander made his second-to-last start for the Arizona Fall League's Salt River Rafters on Thursday night, firing five scoreless innings, while allowing just one hit and no walks with four strikeouts. Appel came to Arizona to make up for lost innings, and he allowed eight earned runs and 15 hits in six starts (26 innings), for a 2.77 ERA.

Video: MSS@SSR: Appel works five innings of one-hit ball

"Being here in the Fall League is a great place to work on things, try new things and get results," Appel said before Thursday's start. "My last outing, obviously, wasn't great. If I were to sum it up, I would just say I lost a little confidence later on with my fastball and obviously the command wasn't there. When the confidence is there, the command is there."

Appel went 1-2 with a 3.69 ERA in seven games (six starts) with Corpus Christi in 2014 after posting a 9.74 ERA in 12 starts for Lancaster, where he struggled to pitch every fifth day in a hitter's environment. He threw only a combined 83 1/3 innings.

Video: MIA@HOU: Appel throws bullpen following his promotion

Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, who has been driving up from Tucson, Ariz., to work with Appel, has been trying to get him to pitch inside more, as well as utilize his above-average slider and mix in some changeups at the right time.

"I've been very pleased with [Appel] trying to incorporate some of the plans we put into place," Strom said.

Because he's a high-profile pick, every outing Appel has is scrutinized. The expectations remain high, despite his up-and-down season, and Appel has placed big expectations on himself, too. When asked if he thought he could reach the big leagues next year, he didn't hesitate.

"I don't think that is unrealistic," Appel said. "I think a lot of things that happen in this game are out of my control. Whether I'm in the big leagues or not, my goal is to work hard and be the best pitcher that I can be and don't let them have an excuse for keeping me out of the big leagues.

"That's not to say that I want other guys to pitch poorly that are ahead of me or whatever. I want to be able to earn a spot and be able to pitch there as soon as possible. When that will be, I have no clue."

It seems unlikely Appel could begin next season in the rotation, though a strong showing in the Minor Leagues could have him in Houston at some point in 2015. That would make the struggles of this season a distant memory.

"There's been a lot of stuff that's happened that I don't think went to anybody's plan," Appel said. "But it's thinking long term. I'm not always caught up in the here and now. Sometimes I do get caught up in it, but I also understand this is a process. The Minor Leagues is a place where I can work out the kinks, figure out how to mentally prepare, physically prepare for pitching every fifth day.

"Pitching in college is a little bit different. You have more off-days, you have more time to rest. It's just a little bit different. But I think getting to Corpus Christi and showing that I can pitch every fifth day and come back and recover and still have good stuff was great confidence for me, knowing that I can do this, and so next year I'm really looking forward to it."

Video: Astros prospects prepare in the AFL

Learning to pitch every fifth day and the work with Strom to tinker with his mechanics are just part of the adjustments Appel has had to make as he gets his feet wet in the pros. And there will be more adjustments once he reaches the Majors.

"I know that I'll always have to make adjustments," Appel said. "That's what this game is, it's game of adjustments. No one ever has it figured out. I don't even think Clayton Kershaw just goes out and tries to do the same thing every single time. It might look like it, but I'm sure he makes adjustments and he focuses on refining his craft, because he knows that in a game it could come back and bite him if he's not careful. And I think that's what makes him so good, is his ability to continue to put in the work, continue to make adjustments and also rely on what has been working."

Appel's status as a No. 1 pick and top prospect don't mean much anymore. He has to prove at some point he's got it all together if he's going to reach Houston sooner rather than later.

"Baseball is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately game," Appel said. "It doesn't matter what I did in college, it doesn't matter where I went in the Draft and it sure as heck doesn't matter what I did in Lancaster or Corpus this year. It matters what I have done most recently, who I am right now.

"I have to prove what I bring to the table that can be beneficial in Houston right now. That's a decision that's not mine to make. Again, my goal is to just work hard and do everything that I can every single day to give myself the best chance to be successful, but more importantly, give the team the best chance to be successful when I'm on the mound."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.
Read More: Houston Astros