If there are two things Henry Owens has done the past two seasons, they are piling up strikeouts and not giving up a lot of hits. Anyone would tell you that's a pretty good formula for a pitcher. What's more, it's made Owens' starts must-follows for Red Sox prospect lovers, an echo of what occurred with Pedro Martinez's starts with the big club around the turn of the millennium.
But those strikeouts and hits allowed don't tell the story alone, do they? The answer, of course, is no, and it might even include a capital "N" in the Minor Leagues, where focus remains squarely on development and growth and not necessarily putting up gaudy numbers. The perfect example came May 15, when Owens struck out eight and allowed no hits but walked five and lasted only four innings against New Britain.
"There are so many things that Henry Owens does that you like," Portland pitching coach Bob Kipper said at the time, "but with that said, there are still things he's challenged with."
Two starts later, the left-hander is ironing out those issues, and -- wouldn't you know it? -- the results are still there.
The top Red Sox prospect scattered three hits, two walks and five strikeouts over seven scoreless innings to lead Portland to a 2-1 win over New Britain.
It was the second straight zero-laden, seven-inning outing for the 6-foot-6 southpaw, who improved to 6-3 with a 2.52 ERA in 11 Eastern League starts this season. The pair of impressive outings comes after a three-game stretch where he allowed only three hits and three runs while fanning 22 but also walking 14 in 15 2/3 innings.
Kipper and Owens continued their work on his delivery in particular, which needed more pace according to the pitching coach, and last Saturday against New Hampshire something clicked.
"We've worked with him a lot on being more upbeat with rhythm in his delivery," Kipper said. "There are times when he's deliberate in his windup, and that begins to work against him, especially with a 6-foot-6 frame. ... Out of the windup, he's never going to be fast; that's just not who he is. But he's done a really nice job of being more upbeat in his last two outings here, and that's something to carry going forward."
Owens did face a few bumps in his latest outing but was able to escape each time. He allowed a single to Tony Thomas and walked Daniel Ortiz in back-to-back plate appearances with one out in the first but emerged unscathed after Kennys Vargas bounced into a double play. He worked around a leadoff double by Brandon Waring in the third and did the same after Ortiz (single) and Vargas (walk) reached to kick off the seventh.
Though he pitched perfect innings in the second, fourth, fifth and sixth, it was Owens' ability to escape from those sticky moments that stood out to Kipper.
"He's able to get out of that by staying in the moment, making it all about that next pitch," said the pitching coach. "It's a mental skill we try to instill in all our pitchers. But when he was challenged with it today, he did his best to stay in the moment and get the outs when he needed them."
Owens tossed 66 of his 99 pitches for strikes, and 17 of those were swings and misses -- 11 of which were on the changeup, three on the curveball and three on the fastball. That's no big surprise as his changeup has long been viewed as the superior off-speed offering, but the curveball was plenty effective Thursday, even if it didn't lead to a high-K count.
"He's not mentally limiting himself with the pitch," Kipper said. "That's something [catcher] Blake Swihart and he have tried to work into the game in the right situation, and they've done it with success. There was one time he got a groundball that Deven Marrero made a heck of a play on -- to get the groundball by Kennys Vargas and make an out -- and there was another that he got a weak flyout.
"It's not always about the strikeout. What we want are outs, and what he did was get them with all his pitches."
Following Thursday's gem, Owens sits atop the Eastern League in average-against (.181) and, yes, strikeouts (68). He also sits fourth with a 1.10 WHIP and eighth with a 2.52 ERA. Those types of numbers usually come with calls for a promotion. But while the Sea Dogs have him, they are hoping the changes in his delivery are there to stay in Portland and beyond.
"He's clearly pitching well," Kipper said. "Obviously, he got off to a really good start, and then, there was about a three-week period that things didn't go as well. But I'll tell you -- this kid is committed to his routine and doing what's going to put him in position to succeed each time out. When his delivery is right, we're going to see big-time results like today."
The Sea Dogs grabbed their two runs Thursday on a pair of one-out RBI doubles by Stefan Welch and Sean Coyle in the first inning.
The game ended on a peculiar play. Portland reliever Noe Ramirez gave up a double to left off the bat of Reynaldo Rodriguez with one out in the ninth. While trying to come around and score, pinch runner A.J. Pettersen tripped near the third baseline and was thrown out on a relay that went from left fielder Peter Hissey to the shortstop Marrero to the catcher Swihart back to third baseman Derrik Gibson. Meanwhile, Rodriguez went too far beyond second base and, in scrambling to get back, was also tagged out on a throw from Gibson to second baseman Heiker Meneses.
Put simply, it was a game-ending 7-6-2-5-4 double play.
"It's funny to talk about that becuase, just the other day, I was talking to our pitchers and saying, 'As long as I'm in this game, I'm going to see something every year that I've never seen before,'" Kipper said. "And that was something I have never seen."