There was a lot expected of Henry Owens entering the 2014 season. Such expectations come with the territory of being a consensus top-100 prospect and being consistently named the top pitching prospect in one of baseball's deeper farm systems. He backed that up by not allowing a run in his first two starts, including six no-hit innings in his season debut, before hitting a little bit of a wall at the beginning of May.
And that's when Portland pitching coach Bob Kipper saw him shine.
"Back in late April, there were a lot of guys struggling and the one guy I saw who wasn't panicking was Henry Owens," Kipper said. "He stayed true to his routine, stuck to his plan, and we're seeing the results of that mind-set now."
The top Red Sox prospect matched a career high with 11 strikeouts and gave up a run on three hits over eight innings in the Double-A Sea Dogs' 6-1 win over New Britain on Sunday at Hadlock Field.
With the gem, Owens (12-3) became the first 12-game winner in the Minor Leagues while winning his eighth straight start.
Owens jumped out of the gate quickly Sunday with a three-pitch strikeout of Rock Cats leadoff man Tony Thomas. He needed only six pitches to get out of the first inning and didn't allow a baserunner until Thomas led off the fourth with a triple.
"He certainly established the tempo of the game right from the get-go," Kipper said. "That's his plan every time out, as it is with everyone. A big part of that was his great command of the fastball. He was as good as I've seen him so far this year with that. Then there was the curveball-changeup mix that kept hitters confused and guessing throughout. It was special to see."
The 6-foot-6 left-hander gave up his only run when Reynaldo Rodriguez doubled home Thomas in the fourth. Owens responded by retiring eight in a row, striking out the side in the sixth. He escaped a jam in the eighth by fanning Thomas with a runner on second and two outs.
That 11th strikeout, coming on his 101st pitch and 68th strike of the afternoon, matched the career best he established in Double-A debut last Aug. 3 against Bowie. It also marked the first time he hit double digits this season.
"You don't punch out 11 batters in eight innings by just having one dominant pitch. You need several, and he had them all today," said Kipper.
Following Sunday, Owens remains atop the Eastern League leaderboard in several categories. He leads the circuit in ERA (2.21), strikeouts (111), WHIP (1.03), complete games (three) and shutouts (two), leading to calls for his promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket.
But with the PawSox rotation already containing top prospects Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, Rubby De La Rosa and Matt Barnes along with improving veteran Steven Wright, it would take a lot of movement to fit Owens into Triple-A. With similar numbers in 2013, he wasn't promoted to Portland until the beginning of August.
Plus, there remains the organization line that he has plenty to work on in Double-A. And that seems to be something Owens has bought into.
"Baseball's not that easy," Kipper said. "You're challenged every time you take the mound, every time you throw a pitch. It's a very, very unfair game. Sometimes you're not rewarded for a great outing. Sometimes you're not penalized when you throw a bad pitch. Because of something like that, I think he looks at every start like an opportunity to challenge himself and make himself a better pitcher against whoever he's facing."
The win pushed Portland to 59-29, the first time the club has been 30 games over .500 since 1995. The Sea Dogs lead second-place Binghamton (51-36) by 7 1/2 games in the Eastern Division.
"It's been very special to be around these guys," Kipper said. "The whole group has been cohesive and relentless. They prepare the right way, and because of that, expect to win every night they show up. It's neat to watch these guys every day."