The Cleveland Indians drafted Ryan Garko in 2003 with every reason to believe he would make a great professional player. He played in four College World Series with Stanford University. He earned a first-team all-American selection. He won the Johnny Bench Award, given annually to the nation's best collegiate catcher.

So far, Garko is surpassing even those high expectations for Class A Kinston, and in his first full professional season was named the Carolina League player of the month for April.

"I was surprised when I got to spring training how well I was swinging the bat, and how easy it felt," said Garko, whose team leads the league's Southern Division and wraps up a three-game series with Potomac today. "Right now I'm in the middle of a lineup that is scoring lots of runs, and that makes it easy. I get a lot of good pitches."

Garko made it look easy from Opening Day, hitting .405 through May 3 -- better even than his senior season average at Stanford (.402). He is third in the league in batting average (.369), on-base percentage (.458) and slugging percentage (.612).

After being drafted out of Stanford in June, he played well but not great for short-season Mahoning Valley of the New York-Penn League, hitting .273 in 45 games.

"Last summer I had to make the adjustment to the wooden bats, and it took a while to get the aluminum out of my swing," said Garko, a career .350 collegiate hitter. "This year I have a lot of confidence at the plate."

Garko got encouragement and words of wisdom just before he embarked on his professional career last summer when Bench, a Hall of Famer and Cincinnati Reds' great, gave Garko the award that bears his name.

"He told me about the work ethic you need to have, about getting through the minor leagues and taking care of my body, and a lot of what he said stuck with me," Garko said. "Anytime you're a catcher and you're standing next to him, that's an amazing honor."