Prior to last season, former 29th-round draft pick Jake Junis wasn’t among the top 30 prospects in the Kansas City farm system. The right-hander from Illinois was probably never even considered for the list.
But after a breakout 2016 campaign at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, Junis has become a semi-regular on the Royals’ active roster. Kansas City has recalled the 24-year-old five times this summer.
Junis is back in Omaha. And on Tuesday, he dominated Pacific North-leading Fresno over six innings at Werner Park. Junis allowed just three hits as the Storm Chasers blasted their way to a 9-1 win.
Corey Toups hit a first-inning grand slam, and Frank Schwindel, Logan Moon and rehabbing Royal Cheslor Cuthbert also homered as Omaha built an 8-0 advantage for Junis after only two innings.
Junis gave up a solo home run to Tony Kemp to open the third but retired 11 straight Grizzlies after that. He threw only 78 pitches and worked from ahead in the count after walking a pair of batters in the second inning. Junis relied on his fastball and off-speed pitches early, then went to a change-up later on.
The latter is a pitch he’s been working on. He and catcher Brayan Pena kept Fresno off-balance with it.
“Pena kept calling it,” Junis said. “I kept throwing it. And we kept getting successful results.”
The righty moved to 3-5 on the season as his earned-run average dropped to 2.92. He would lead the Pacific Coast League in that category if the promotions hadn’t kept him shy of the innings to qualify.
Junis has had nine appearances with the Royals, including six starts. He made his major league debut on April 12 with a relief outing against Oakland. He was promoted after only one start with the Chasers.
“It’s definitely something new,” he said. “Every season before this, I’ve pretty much stayed at that level the entire season — besides last year when I came up here for the last month. It’s been fun. It’s been challenging. But I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ll take any and every moment I can get up in the big leagues. When I come back down here, I still want to pitch with 100 percent focus and do the best that I can.”
Junis has seen his stock with Kansas City rise after his stellar season at Double-A last year, when he was a Texas League all-star with the Naturals. Even though he went 1-3 with a 7.20 ERA with the Chasers after a late-season promotion, he opened this year as the Royals’ No. 15 prospect (Baseball America).
He then beat all the players in front of him to the majors after a stellar start in Colorado Springs.
“It did happen pretty quick,” he said. “Last year was a good year for me. That was the kind of beginning of all of this. … It was like my turning point. And when I came up here, I struggled, too, last year. I definitely went into the offseason thinking about getting my butt kicked here in Triple-A. I didn’t want that to happen again.”
Junis has been nearly unhittable at Werner this season. He’s given up only two runs in 20 innings.
Tuesday’s victory was the first he’s earned at home this year. The early offense helped him out.
“Jake threw the ball well,” Omaha manager Brian Poldberg said. “Any time you can have a 5-0 lead after the first is over, everybody relaxes. Every play is not as magnified as it is in a 0-0 or one-run game.”
Billy Burns tripled off Fresno starter Kent Emanuel to open the Chasers’ big first, scoring on Dean Anna’s RBI single. Schwindel extended his hitting streak to 18 games in that inning with the first of his three hits. And Moon drew a walk ahead of the second home run in as many games for Toups.
“He was throwing a lot of strikes early on, and all the guys were touching him pretty well,” Toups said of his grand slam. “I just got in there and tried to get a strike early. He threw a ball away, and I saw it really well. And then he threw one down the middle and I turned on it.”