CORPUS CHRISTI - On April 6, Hooks starting pitcher Asher Wojciechowski cruised through five innings, allowing just one hit while striking out seven. By the end of the fifth, 'Wojo' had retired 11 consecutive Springfield Cardinals.
David Martinez came out of the bullpen to start the sixth inning.
Three days later against the Tulsa Drillers, Bobby Doran gave up a two-out single in the first inning and proceeded to set down the next 13 hitters. When the sixth inning began, Nick Tropeano was on the mound.
This is how games are unfolding - at least for the season's first two months - for pitchers in the Astros system at Double-A and Triple-A. When spring training ended, Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow announced that teams at the top two levels of the organization would use a tandem starter system in which each club has four pairs of starting pitchers. One starts the game and works the first five innings, followed by the "second starter," who pitches until the manager decides he needs a late inning specialist. The two swap roles every four days.
"We haven't really gotten into a mess yet where, God forbid, somebody gets hit by a line drive or we go 15 innings," Hooks pitching coach Gary Ruby said. "But my biggest concern right now is the schedule. Being on a four-day and seeing how we hold up physically, and again when we hit those bad days when things go astray."
Ruby has served as a minor league pitching coach or coordinator since 1987 and has seen organizations handle pitching prospects in nearly every conceivable way. While using tandem starters is common practice in lower levels of the minor leagues, this is the first time Ruby has been involved in its use at Double-A or above.
"When you get to the top two levels, you get guys that are much closer to the big leagues. No matter how you want to try and put a spin on it, they're interested in winning," he said. "We're trying to take them away from that approach, where it's pitch good and you go to the big leagues, never mind wins and losses."
Since the tandems are expected to last for just two months, it would be easy to imagine eight starting pitchers squaring off in a knock-down, drag-out battle royale for the five traditional rotation spots expected to go into use come June. But Doran said that's not the case.
"We're all best friends and, at least the way (Tropeano) and I approach it is, the starter gets five and the next guy has to finish it out, that's how we approach it and that's what we're trying to do," the Texas Tech product said.
"I think it's all mental, how you approach it," Tropeano said. "Usually starters have a routine and you have to try to carry that over if you're on the back end of the tandem. You gotta try to stick to your routine and warm up the way you would if you were starting a game."
Tropeano admitted the pair's goal each time out at Whataburger Field is to spell out "LAREDO TACO" on a board in left-center field, a promotion in which each letter represents a strikeout and sends fans home with a coupon for a free taco.
Doran and Tropeano have combined to strikeout 23 hitters in their three starts, tops among the four pairs, including 10 in their April 9 shutout of the Drillers.
They're far from the only hurlers to enjoy early season success. Wojciechowski has not allowed a run and has fanned 14 batters. Jake Buchanan has a 2.77 earned run average in his first three appearances. And David Martinez has posted a 2.89 ERA over the same span.
While the tandem starting pitchers have led the Hooks to a 7-5 mark through 12 games, the system still presents some challenges.
"It's hard because maybe the first starter he throws good for five innings and then you change and for the other starter you have to change the plan," catcher Carlos Perez said. "He has maybe some different stuff and you have to change a little bit the plan that you have."
Traditionally, starting pitcher, catcher and pitching coach meet before each contest to discuss how they want to attack opposing hitters. Now, Perez said, that meeting includes two starting pitchers, so he has to get a feel for the strengths and weaknesses of both.
In addition to managing starting pitchers Ruby and manager Keith Bodie also have five relief pitchers on the staff who need work.
"Keith handles pitchers as well as any manager I've ever been around and we very seldom disagree (on in-game decisions). And when we do disagree, we're big boys, we've been together a long time," Ruby said.
Closer Jason Stoffel and left-handed relievers Alex Sogard and Patrick Urckfitz have yet to allow a run in a combined 10.2 innings out of the bullpen. Their effectiveness, in addition tedious pre-game planning, make Ruby's job much easier.
"I would say 95 percent of our decisions are made prior," he said. "Know your scenarios and always think the worst when you lay out your pitching. A guy gets hit by a line drive, a guy gives up seven runs, his pitch count goes astray, you know exactly where you're headed, you have to have your options ready."
While pitchers generally want to pitch at the game's highest level as either a starter or closer, Doran said he knows the road to the big leagues can take several unexpected turns.
"It's a good learning experience for everybody. We've all predominantly been starters most of our career, now it gives us something else to put on the resume, coming in, being able to pitch out of the bullpen, being able to finish up games," he said. "It gives you something to say, 'yeah, I've done it,' just in case along the line something happens."
So far, mostly good things have happened for the Hooks pitching staff, which boasts 3.11 earned run average, third in the Texas League.