Domingo Tapia already has a plus fastball and a sinking changeup that projects to be at least average at the big league level.
But two pitches can only carry you so far, as the Mets' No. 13 prospect found out two starts ago when he got rocked for eight runs as his opponents sat dead red and teed off on fastball after fastball.
Citi Field is still a long way away and that outing hit home just how badly he needed to improve his slider, even in the lower levels of the Minor Leagues. On Wednesday night, he took that lesson to heart.
Tapia allowed three singles and three walks while striking out one batter over a season-high seven shutout innings as Class A Advanced St. Lucie held on for a 3-2 road win over Brevard County.
"He threw very well," St. Lucie pitching coach Phil Regan said. "He threw seven innings, so that's a good feeling, and he only gave up one solid hit. He always has a good fastball and a good changeup, but what we have been really stressing to him is that while he has two tremendous pitches, he needs that third pitch.
"We have been encouraging him to throw his slider, but he wasn't comfortable with it. Tonight, we insisted he threw it. He did and he was a completely different pitcher. It's been a little tough because we've been trying to get him to do it for 1 1/2 years because he has such great confidence in his changeup and fastball. But we told him that to pitch for the Mets in New York, he will need that breaking ball."
The 22-year-old right-hander was forced to work out of the stretch in all seven innings, but his time on the mound was kept to a minimum with all three hits being erased on double plays.
Tapia worked around walks in each of the first innings and an error by shortstop Phillip Evans in the third. He lost his no-hit bid on Cameron Garfield's one-out single in the fourth but induced a double play off the bat of Alfredo Rodriguez to escape unharmed. Tapia issued another free pass in the fifth before surrendering infield singles to Orlando Arcia in the sixth and Rodriguez in the seventh.
"This is his longest stint he has gone and with seven shutout innings and three hits, this is his best outing of the year," Regan said.
Signed by Mets as a non-drafted free agent in 2009, Tapia has dazzled at times this season, but his inconsistency is still a cause for concern for Regan. He fired five hitless innings against Fort Myers on April 13 and limited Clearwater to a lone hit over four frames on May 21 just six days after surrendering eight runs on 10 hits in 4 2/3 innings against Tampa.
Over 45 2/3 innings, Tapia has 22 walks and 20 strikeouts, worse than his ratios a year ago. He also has given up three homers, the same number he allowed all of 2013, which tied his 2011 career high.
"[Against Tampa], he only threw five breaking balls. The rest were fastballs and changeups," Regan noted. "We're trying to get another pitch into the mix where they can't sit on the fastball. It's not mechanical, it's just adding a new pitch and getting it over.
"It's been a little while convincing him, but tonight he saw the value of it. Now he can throw three pitches instead of two. "
A year ago, Tapia was 3-9 with a 4.62 ERA in 23 games, including 22 starts, for St. Lucie. He recorded 89 strikeouts against 63 walks over 101 1/3 innings in his fifth year of pro ball. While he has more walks than strikeouts this season and fewer strikeouts than last year, those numbers are the least of Regan's concerns.
"The strikeouts will come. When he gets a little more confidence in what we're trying to do, the strikeouts will come and he'll keep his walks down," Regan said. "I'm happy with the progress he's made. Tonight, he took a big step forward and convinced himself that he needs that pitch. If we can get him to believe that, he'll be a pretty good pitcher."
Chase Huchingson relieved Tapia and worked a perfect eighth. Randy Fontanez allowed two runs on three hits in the ninth but notched his seventh save.
Jairo Perez went 3-for-4 with two RBIs and a run scored to lead the Mets' offense.
Manatees starter Hobbs Johnson (4-6) surrendered three runs -- two earned -- on four hits and two walks over six innings. He struck out five.