There was no doubt that Taylor Guerrieri was cruising coming into his start Monday afternoon for Class A Bowling Green at West Michigan. He had tossed three consecutive scoreless outings -- a stretch that encompassed 16 innings -- and was sporting a 5-2 record with a 2.29 ERA.
But early on Monday, something didn't feel right. He didn't have his curveball, considered by many to be his best offspeed offering. Instead, he turned to his changeup -- a pitch he didn't even have in his arsenal two years ago when the Rays took him 24th overall in the Draft -- around 20 times, more than double his seven to 10 per game.
The scary thing was, although the curveball wasn't there, the zeros still were, and now the scoreless streak has reached new heights.
"The fastball command felt good," said the Rays' No. 2 prospect. "The changeup was working well, which is great for me. I think I threw it 20 times today. Then, the defense played great too. … The curveball just wasn't there for me, but the changeup was getting in there for strikes. I was feeling pretty comfortable with it."
Guerrieri tossed six scoreless innings, allowing six hits and striking out three along the way, to lead the Hot Rods to a 6-1 win over the Whitecaps at Fifth Third Ballpark. With the gem, his scoreless streak has extended to a franchise-best 22 straight frames.
There were certainly times early on when it looked like the 6-foot-5 right-hander's streak would come to an end on Monday.
He allowed leadoff singles in each of the first three innings and had allowed two runners to reach in the second. But the groundball specialist was able to force double plays that wiped out threats in the first and second and was aided by his batterymate when Luke Maile caught Bennett Pickar stealing in the third. His first perfect inning didn't come until the fifth.
Despite the times of trouble, he finished his outing with just 72 pitches, 50 of which were strikes. In all, 13 of the 23 batters he faced had at-bats of three pitches or fewer on the afternoon.
With the win, MLB.com's No. 40 prospect, who was added to the U.S. Team roster for this month's Futures Game, improved to 6-2 with a 2.08 ERA (fourth-best in the Midwest League) and 0.98 WHIP (second-best) through 13 starts this season. A big factor for those lower numbers is, of course, his current run, which Guerrieri believes there's no particular trick to maintaining.
"It's really tough to say, actually," he said. "A lot of it is luck obviously. You get some bounces, the defense makes the right plays behind you. Things are just going my way right now, and I'm certainly not complaining."
His scoreless streak not only passed the franchise's best ever on Monday, but it also nudged out Jeff Ames (6-1, 2.11 ERA, 0.95 WHIP), who went 20 straight such innings from April 30-May 20, for the best on the squad this season. Ames -- Tampa Bay's No. 12 prospect -- has another run of 19 innings going now, however, after tossing four scoreless frames Sunday.
Though there will be a chance for one Hot Rod to one-up the other later this week, Guerrieri flatly denied that there is any direct contest between the two.
"No, no, nothing more than friendly competition," he said. "Jeff's a good guy, a good teammate, and it's all nothing more than friendly. We all want to see each other do well, and we let that drive us more than anything."
For now the two have combined with Dylan Floro (7-2, 2.03) to create the best pitching staff in the Midwest League as Bowling Green leads the circuit with a 2.98 ERA as a team, more than half a run clear than its closest competitor, Fort Wayne (3.51). That leads one to wonder just how much the three right-handers have to prove in Class A ball.
At least in the eyes of the organization's best pitching prospect, there's plenty left.
"Yeah, I've got a lot more to prove here," Guerrieri said. "Working on getting more first-pitch strikes, getting my strikeout ratio [50 strikeouts in 65 innings] higher, decreasing my walks, those sorts of things -- if I can do all that, I'll be a happy camper, but for now, there's still plenty to work on."
Maile finished 3-for-5 with two doubles and two RBIs to lead the Hot Rods offense. Patrick Leonard chipped in a 2-for-4 showing with a double and an RBI of his own.