MODESTO, Calif. — During his time at St. Anthony, Daniel Winkler didn't really consider playing college baseball — until someone told him he should.
After enrolling at Parkland College, he didn't necessarily think he'd be at the University of Central Florida two years later and in the Colorado Rockies organization the year after that.
But now, three years into his professional career, Winkler isn't just pitching and playing; he's dominating the California League for the Modesto Nuts, Colorado's High-A minor-league affiliate.
"When I was in high school, it was nothing I ever thought about," Winkler said. "I never thought about playing college baseball until someone said something to me about it.
"I had a good arm, (but) I've honed my skills and gotten better control. I'm taking baseball a lot more seriously. It's still fun, but it's my job."
It all came to a head Monday night for Winkler and Modesto, as he and two relievers combined for a no-hitter against the San Jose Giants. Winkler went seven strong innings, striking out seven and walking three.
No hitters usually aren't part of Winkler's in-game thought process, but even he had to turn his attention to the matter midway through.
"In the sixth, my second baseman made back-to-back diving plays," he said. "They were unbelievable plays, and I was like, 'Now I can't give up any hits.' They wanted it as bad as I did. It was one of the high points of my career."
It was the first no-hitter in Nuts history, and the first for the Modesto franchise since Aug. 15, 1987 when they were the Modesto A's.
Winkler's been pitching like that all season, however, as he's taken a no-hitter into the sixth inning three times this month alone. In the hitter-friendly California League, it's been nothing but Winkler-friendly.
He leads the league with a 10-2 record over 90.2 innings, with a 1.99 ERA, 105 strikeouts and a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 0.78.The 105 strikeouts are more than any other pitcher throughout all the minor leagues, and the WHIP is the best mark among starters at all levels of pro ball - majors included.
It's been all about control for the former Bulldog, in more ways that just locating his fastball.
"Mentally, I've been working pitch-to-pitch, and not worrying about things I can't control," he said. "I can control how hard I work, how I pitch. That's the one thing I have improved on. I was trying too hard to move up, change levels, and this year I've just been content."
He was drafted in the 43rd round of the 2010 draft by the Chicago Cubs out of Parkland, transferred to UCF, and signed with the Rockies after being drafted in the 20th round of the 2011 draft. Before this season, he had a record of 15-13 in just under 200 innings pitched, but his new approach has led to league-leading success.
"Every year, every day, that's what the minor leagues is about, improving yourself to get to the majors," Winkler said.
Last week, Winkler represented the California League as they took on the Carolina League in the High-A All-Star game in San Jose.
While the Cal League struggled in a 12-2 loss, Winkler tossed a perfect inning, striking out two, the best showing of any Cal League pitcher on the day.
"It was fun, I got to come out of the pen," he said. "Pitch in front of 5,000 people, packed house, meeting the guys you pitch against. Just enjoying the game."
Winkler is having a banner year, but hasn't heard anything about potentially being promoted due to his success this year, and likes it that way as he can stay focused on pitching.
He hasn't forgotten his time pitching for the Bulldogs, and won't anytime soon.
"I appreciate where I came from," Winkler said. "It's fun to tell people I'm from a town of 12,000 and a high school of 200. People are in awe of that."
Winkler may have never anticipated playing at a level above high school or junior college.
But if he keeps this up, he'll be moving up from the California League.