CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- Perhaps the biggest challenge for right-handed pitcher Mark Appel on Wednesday night was figuring how he was going to get some sleep on an overnight bus trip to Midland that will cover nearly 500 miles.
Appel could at least relax with the peace of mind his much-anticipated Double-A debut was a success, even if it came in a game in which Corpus Christi suffered a no-hitter. That didn't matter to Appel, though, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft who got his season back on track at Whataburger Field.
Appel, the Astros' No. 2 prospect, took another step toward brushing aside his highly-publicized struggles earlier this year at Class A Lancaster by throwing five scoreless innings, allowing two singles and four walks, while striking out four batters in the Hooks' 6-0 loss to San Antonio in which he got a no-decision.
"I'm just thankful and grateful for the opportunity," Appel said. "I'm just excited to be able to be here, and hopefully I can help the team win some games. It's another game. It's moving in the right direction. I've got to be really happy about that. It's great. I love that I was able to go out and have a scoreless outing, and hopefully I can build off that and work in the bullpen and prepare for my next start like usual and continue to ride this momentum a little bit."
The 6-foot-5 right-hander threw 83 pitches, including 49 strikes. He had eight swing-and-misses, including all four of his strikeouts on sliders. Appel tired at the end, but he still gutted through the fifth and was two pitches shy of his pitch limit.
"I thought it was a good outing," said Astros senior pitching advisor Doug Brocail, who's serving as interim pitching coach at Corpus Christi. "He went out and stuck with the game plan. He has some work to do, but he threw up five zeroes. I'll take zeros any way we can get them."
So will Appel, whose rocky first half at Lancaster -- which didn't even include a month at extended spring training -- was the subject of much scrutiny by those expecting more of the top pick in the Draft who signed a $6.35 million bonus.
"It was frustrating while I was going through it," Appel said. "I didn't make too much of it. I tried to read as little as possible, because I'm not ignorant to the fact people will be watching what I'm doing, whether it's there at the games or checking the stat sheet each night.
"Obviously, questions will rise when I don't have the success everybody's expecting, but I didn't make too much of it. Like I said [Tuesday], I don't think anybody is going to remember what my ERA was in High A when we're competing for a World Series in Houston."
The Astros announced last weekend they were moving Appel to Double-A despite scuffling at Lancaster this year, going 2-5 with a 9.74 ERA in 12 starts. The club wanted to get him away from the hitter-friendly environment of the California League, and the initial returns were good.
"You always hear the biggest jump sometimes is between High A and Double-A," Appel said. "It's no secret that I didn't have outstanding success in High A, but I feel like I'm in a place where I'm doing the things that I need to do to be successful going forward.
"Whatever happened in the past, it's in the past, so I'm excited to move forward. I learned that it's still baseball. The talent might be a little bit better, but you still have to make the pitches, you still have to compete. I think I'll take those lessons and apply them to my next game."
Appel, 23, began Wednesday's outing with a steady diet of fastballs, hitting 96 mph on three consecutive pitches out of the gate and finishing the inning with four consecutive fastballs of 96, 97, 97 and 96. He recorded a pair of strikeouts on sliders in the second and pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the third.
"I just took a deep breath," Appel said. "I had walked a couple of guys and gave up that hit and got out of a jam and kind of took a deep breath and said, 'OK, it's time to go.' I think the biggest adjustment is I took a deep breath and the weight was off my back a little bit. I was three innings into my first Double-A game, and I guess I'm here to stay."
After working a 1-2-3 fourth inning, Appel walked Cody Overbeck on four pitches to start the fifth and gave up a two-out single to Casey McElroy before he got Yeison Asencio to hit into a fielder's choice on his 83rd and final pitch of the game.
"When I got in trouble and when I started walking guys was when I wasn't trusting my stuff and saying, 'See what you can do with it? I'm going to leave it right there,'" Appel said before smiling. "Not right there, but down in the zone, at the knees and try to work in and out and try to make them prove they can beat me."
Appel was a bit gassed at the end, with this fastball off to around 90 mph. It was to be expected after he threw six innings on July 24 in his final start for Lancaster at Stockton, Calif., and gave up two runs and no walks and struck out seven batters in what heretofore was the best outing of his career.
"I like the fact he got tired, because that settled him down in the zone," Brocail said. "I thought his third, fourth and fifth innings were better than first and second. We've got to smooth him up a little bit, and when that happens, it should help get the ball down the zone."
Brocail said Appel will pitch every fifth day in the tandem starter system and will be kept on that schedule for the final month of the season. Working with Brocail should be beneficial, as was the bullpen session he threw Sunday under the watchful eye of Astros pitching coach Brent Strom at Minute Maid Park.
"I think it kind of helped me relax a little bit," Appel said. "I know I was a little bit antsy in these first couple of innings here in my start. Being able to do that and have Strommy say, 'Hey, everything is looking good, you're moving in the right direction,' just affirmation for what I had been feeling, is always great, especially coming from the big league pitching coach.
"It was fun to be in Houston and something I can hopefully look forward to in the future. I know that I have work to do here in Corpus, and I have work to do wherever I end up."