Frederick Keys reliever Tony Neal said he couldn't have been more surprised to learn that he will replace injured starter Richard Stahl on the Carolina League all-star team. The hard-throwing 23-year-old may have been the only one.

Entering play Friday, Neal had not allowed an earned run in his past nine appearances, a span of 151/3 innings that included two wins and 15 strikeouts. He had also allowed only one earned run in 232/3 innings, holding opposing batters to an .087 average (4 for 46) this month. "I've been throwing the ball well lately, but it was just still kind of a shock," said Neal (2-2). "At the same time, though, I'm honored."

After being drafted in the 20th round from South Alabama last June, Neal made a strong debut with short-season Class A Aberdeen, posting a 2-1 record with a 1.94 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 19 relief appearances. After being promoted to advanced Class A Frederick this spring, however, he struggled.

"When I first got here, I was kind of getting the ball up a little bit and my mechanics were a little off," said Neal. "But [Keys pitching coach] Scotty McGregor sat me down and talked to me a little bit about getting back on top of the ball and working down in the zone."

Since then, Neal has been nearly unhittable, jumping ahead in counts by attacking opposing hitters with his fastball.

Still, Neal laments that his participation in the Carolina League-California League All-Star Game on Tuesday in San Bernardino, Calif., is coming at the expense of Stahl (4-4, 3.69 ERA), who is sidelined with a groin injury.

"He's been throwing the ball great for us all year and he really deserved this," said Neal.

* CLIFFORDS EXCELS: Since being demoted from Class AA Bowie, outfielder Woody Cliffords has hit a team-high .374 in 36 games, including a four-hit night Monday against Winston-Salem. . . . The Keys finished the first half of the Carolina League season 20-49, last in the Northern Division. They have lost the first three games of the second half.