Class A Quad Cities might have taken a certain part of the musical Annie Get Your Gun literally Thursday. Two of their pitchers acted out their own renditions of "Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)" in a doubleheader against Lake County.
"We like to think of it as friendly competition," River Bandits pitching coach Erick Abreu said. "You hear these guys talking, and if one of them goes five innings one start, the next one wants to go six. If one strikes out seven, the other next guy says, 'Now I want eight.' The way they talk to each other, they've been like this the whole time so far this season."
Right-handers Brett Conine and Nivaldo Rodriguez played their part in the ultimate game of one-upmanship, each tossing seven-inning scoreless gems in both ends of the twinbill. Conine allowed just one hit without a walk while striking out seven in a 7-2 win in the opener while Rodriguez scattered two hits and a walk while fanning nine in a 1-0 win in the nightcap.
Game 1 box score | Game 2 box score
Conine's special outing came under interesting circumstances. The River Bandits and Captains began a regular nine-inning game Wednesday, only for it to be suspended in the top half of the first inning with the road team up, 2-0. After play resumed Thursday, the Bandits added on two more runs before Conine even got the ball. He ran with the opportunity. The only hit he allowed was a single to right field by Daniel Schneemann to open the third inning. Two batters also reached on errors -- Tyler Freeman on a bad throw by Trey Dawson in the first and Mitch Reeves on a fielding miscue by Mitch Reeves in the seventh -- but neither advanced beyond first successfully. In fact, Conine recorded 14 outs in a row between the third and seventh.
When the 2018 11th rounder out of Cal State Fullerton completed the seventh -- marking the longest outing of his young career -- he had thrown only 77 pitches, 57 for strikes.
"Conine's a guy that will attack right from the first pitch," Abreu said. "As a hitter, you're going to have to swing the bat or else he'll get you out on three pitches just like that. He mixes his pitches well and he threw the changeup well today, forcing them to swing and get a lot of weak contact. The big thing with him is always how economical he can be with his pitches."
The 22-year-old right-hander improved to 2-2 with a 2.25 ERA through five outings. He has struck out 34 batters and walked only two over 28 innings. His 0.64 WHIP ranks second in the Midwest League and third among all Minor League qualifiers. Though it's coming against Class A bats, the former Titan is finding ways to put himself on the map early in his first full season.
"The last key for him is going to be the development of the slider," said the pitching coach. "He's begun to use it with right-handed hitters, and he has the curveball and changeup to use against lefties. He's always going to be able to challenge guys with the fastball command too because he can throw it down, he can elevate, whatever he wants. All of that together is what keeps batters always guessing."
In the seven-inning nightcap, Rodriguez (3-1) threw Quad Cities' first complete game of the 2019 season. He carried a no-hit bid into the fifth before Connor Smith singled on a popup to center with two outs in the frame. He also surrendered a single by Ruben Cardenas to open the seventh, but the right fielder was stranded on first.
The 22-year-old right-hander particularly got on a roll in the strikeout department, fanning seven batters in a row at one point between the first and third. His nine total strikeouts matched a career high first established on June 14, 2017 with the Astros' Dominican Summer League affiliate.
2019 MiLB include
Following his gem, Rodriguez vaulted up the Midwest League leaderboard. He ranks sixth with a 1.33 ERA over 27 innings, stands tied for third with 33 strikeouts and in third outright with a 0.81 WHIP. Like Conine, the Venezuela native has stayed in the strike zone with only three walks issued in his five Class A starts.
"Specifically with him, it's about showing intent behind his pitches," Abreu said. "The last two games, he was too careful, but today, he was attacking the strike zone. He was also able to speed up the velocity of his curveball a little bit, and that's his best pitch. It can really freeze batters. When he's doing all that, that's the difference on a day like today."
Conine and Rodriguez's gems fit a bit of a pattern within the Quad Cities staff. The River Bandits lead the Midwest League with 290 strikeouts in 213 1/3 innings. Then again, getting swings-and-misses isn't new to the Astros system. Their prospects rank second among the 30 farm systems in K's (trailing only the Mariners) after finishing first in 2018 and fourth in 2017. The organization strives to get pitchers used to going for whiffs, starting at the lower levels, and Quad Cities -- which sits atop the MWL Western Division at 15-10 -- has reaped rewards early.
"We work hard on developing the shape of the pitches, making sure those are good," Abreu said. "We always want to start by attacking the strike zone, but when it gets to 0-2, 1-2, we want to put hitters away. So we work hard on developing the shape of our off-speed stuff, and the pitchers, they trust that the work is going to keep putting hitters away, if they do it right."