Since I've moved to Chapel Hill, I always make it a point to get to Durham to see the Indianapolis Indians play at least once. Some years I get to one, sometimes I get to more. Sometimes I go with a bunch of people and occasionally I go by myself. Sometimes I'm excited to go and see a prospect or two play, and sometimes I'm pretty ambivalent.
This year, I was pretty ambivalent about it. I really wanted to see Starling Marte in person because he seems like the kind of player that needs to be seen to be really appreciated, but no one else on the offensive side is really that exciting. I saw both Rudy Owens and Justin Wilson in Durham last year and was generally disappointed by them, though I figured it'd be interesting to see either of them with an extra year of experience. The same goes for Jeff Locke, who I didn't see in person but was pretty underwhelmed by during his stint with the Pirates.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that when I tried to round up the troops on Friday to go to Durham, most of my friends wanted to hang out in town and go to a concert, and so I went with them instead of watching Jo-Jo Reyes pitch. Indianapolis responded with a ridiculous offensive outburst that had them up 8-0 after the top of the second inning. After I went to the game on Saturday night, I thought about going back by myself on Sunday afternoon until I realized it was at 5:00 and not at 1:00 like I orginally thought, which didn't fit my lab schedule for the afternoon. And so Justin Wilson and Doug Slaten threw a no-hitter (this is interesting to me for another reason that I'll discuss shortly). Of course they did.
So, what about the game that I did see on Saturday? The basic, boring, run of the mill, non-no-hitter, 2-0 Indianapolis win? As it turned out, Rudy Owens was the most intriguing part of the game for me. If you recall, I saw Owens pitch against Durham last year and was really unimpressed. If you don't want to read that whole recap, the long and short of it from last May was that Owens wasn't terrible, but he got into a lot of trouble early on and he leaned on his fastball a ton, which didn't fool many Durham hitters and lead to some really hard hit balls.
The first thing I was curious to see was Owens' velocity, given his shoulder problems last year. From what I could tell, it was pretty much where it was last spring, with his fastball generally sitting around 88-89, occasionally
a touch faster (he hit 91 at least once) or slower. He kept the velocity all night; I didn't chart his velocities, but he definitely hit 90 at least once in all seven of his innings. That's pretty much where the similarities from last year ended, though.
He mixed his pitches very well on Saturday night and his changeup was very, very effective. A lot of his outs came in the air, but of the nine air outs I recorded (meaning not strikeouts or groundouts, basically), there were two infield popups and at least a couple of others that were basically shallow pop flies to the outfielders. The Bulls made solid contact against him a couple of times, but he also did a great job of keeping them off balance all night, both by changing speeds and spotting his fastball very well.
There is a caveat that applies here (and to Sunday's no-hitter as well): Durham is terrible this year and they started an all-lefty lineup against Owens on Saturday for reasons that are beyond me. I'm not sure there are a ton of safe conclusions to draw from his performance against a team like that, honestly. That being said, just comparing last year's start to this year's, it seems like Owens has learned quite a bit from his rough Triple-A debut in 2011. Last spring I saw a guy that seemed like he was miles away from being ready for a big league game, despite being at Triple-A. On Saturday, I saw a guy that could probably make a spot start or two should the Pirates need it this year. The flyballs do concern me a bit (in the past I sort of figured him for a Paul Maholm comp based on velocity, but Maholm was definitely more of a ground baller) since a few of them were hit quite well by the light-hitting Durham lineup. Based on Tim's recap of the game (he was also there), my guess that Owens was throwing a lot of changeups and not a ton of curves (I was on the third baseline for most of the game and not completely sure since the velocity was similar) was right, which means he'll probably have to improve his curveball to be an effective big leaguer. There's definitely more in him than I saw last year, though, and I'm happy to see that he's rebounding well after his bad year last year.
Indy's offense was an entirely different story. They scored in the second inning when Jordy Mercer singled, Brandon Boggs "tripled" him in (a Durham outfielder fell on the track while running it down, turning a double into a triple) and then scored on a Gorkys Hernandez flyball. After that, they had one hit. They threatened a few times since Chris Archer struggled with his control all night, but never seriously since they couldn't really hit. Starling Marte had a rough night at the plate, striking out looking twice and grounding out to the left side of the infield twice. I won't draw conclusions from seeing four at-bats, but striking out twice against a guy without great command -- which is what Archer was on Saturday -- is exactly why he's in Triple-A right now and why the Pirates may not be in a hurry to get hm out of there, even with Jose Tabata's struggles.
That being said, Marte's speed in the outfield is incredible. His speed was really what I wanted to get a feel for, and it's definitely something to behold in person. He plays incredibly shallow in center, to the point that it was the first thing I noticed when Indy took the field in the bottom of the first. Over the course of nine innings I saw him both call off Mercer and Anderson Hernandez on a pop-up just barely behind second base and track down a hard-hit blast to the warning track in center field. I'm not a huge critic of Andrew McCutchen's defense in center (I think he was quite good last year), but seeing Starling Marte just once, it's hard to see him playing somewhere else.
There wasn't much else from Saturday to talk about (Anderson Hernandez made a nice play! Nick Evans hit some balls hard!), but I did want to mention Wilson's no-hitter briefly. When I saw Wilson pitch last year, he no-hit the Bulls for 6 1/3 innings, but was pulled after seven with three strikeouts and five walks. I thought he did a good job keeping the Durham hitters off balance and preventing them from making good contact, but the guy almost got through seven no-hit innings in front of me and I wrote that I "wasn't exactly blown away." Control is always his biggest concern and I'm worried that the Durham lineup I saw last night played right into his hands (his BB/9 was 5.6 going in and five of Owens' six strikeouts on Saturday were swinging), but according to Tim's report his velocity was better than I saw last year. Of course, a no-hitter is something to be celebrated whether it comes against a bad lineup or not, but hopefully this is a sign that Wilson's turning the corner and that the Pirates decision to put him back into the rotation will pay some dividends down the road.