When the San Diego Padres inserted Andrew Cashner into their starting rotation a few weeks into the 2013 season, it may have been his last chance to prove he could be durable enough to remain there.

Less than a year later, it’s clear that Cashner is not only in the rotation to stay, but it looks like he’ll be the ace of the staff as long as he’s in a Padres uniform.

And after he pitched a one-hit shutout against the Detroit Tigers on Friday evening, striking out 11 and allowing only four balls to reach the outfield, it’s starting to become evident that he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. 

Cashner has a great presence on the mound, and he throws hard. His pitches have excellent movement, he has a plus slider and changeup, and he has top-notch command of his offerings. 

He’s competitive, pitches deep into games and works quickly, which helps keep defenders alert. He’s efficient and is a terrific defender and baserunner. And it’s all coming together for the 27-year-old Texan, who is emerging as an early-season favorite for the NL Cy Young Award. 

In his first five professional seasons from 2008-2012, the 6’6″ right-hander suffered a myriad injuries that kept him from solidifying a rotation spot with the Chicago Cubs, who took Cashner with the 19th pick in the 2008 draft out of Texas Christian University, or the Padres, who acquired him in a trade for Anthony Rizzo in January 2012. 

With the injury-prone label already attached, the Padres eased Cashner into a starting role by having him pitch out of the bullpen to start the 2012 season. After making 27 relief appearances, he finally made his first start as a Padre in early June.

He strained a lat muscle during his third start, however, which caused him to miss the next two months. He returned to make two starts in September but was shut down after aggravating the injury. 

Still, the Padres had every intention of giving Cashner a chance to start in 2013. Even when he lacerated a tendon in his right thumb during an offseason hunting accident, they were committed to giving him his chance once he was ready. 

Cashner made his first start of 2013 on April 20. Six starts later, the Padres were beginning to see signs of greatness as he transitioned from a relief pitcher who could throw his fastball 100 miles per hour to a starter who was pitching more to contact and giving his team seven or eight solid innings.

At the time, it appeared that manager Bud Black was getting the sense that he had a staff ace in the making, per Corey Brock of MLB.com:

“He’s got front-of-the-rotation-type of stuff,” said Black. “It’s a big arm. I think now, he’s starting to come into his own. The last couple of years have been interrupted. Hopefully it’s smooth sailing from here on out.”

And smooth sailing it has been. In 29 starts since entering the rotation last April, Cashner has posted a 2.84 ERA with 141 strikeouts in 186.2 innings pitched and only allowed 154 hits and 48 walks. He’s completed at least seven innings in 14 of those starts and allowed two earned runs or fewer 18 times. 

While the strikeout totals aren’t necessarily what you’d expect from a top-of-the-rotation starter, especially one with a mid-90s fastball, the quick outs are what have enabled him to pitch deep into games. However, he’s starting to show that he’s capable of doing both. 

After striking out no more than six batters in any of his first 19 starts of 2013, Cashner K’d seven batters in six of his last seven games. He completed at least seven innings in each and threw fewer than 100 pitches three times, including a one-hit shutout of the Pirates on Sept. 16. 

In Friday’s game, Cashner was only a Rajai Davis bloop single away from the first no-hitter in Padres history, but it still has to qualify as one of the best starts ever by a San Diego pitcher.

His 11th strikeout of the night came on a 95 mph fastballhis 108th and final pitch of the gamethat two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera swung through to end the game. 

It’s fitting that 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and 2011 Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander were watching Cashner spin his masterpiece from the visitor’s dugout. If he keeps it up, he could join their elite club shortly after the season. 

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