Double-A Jackson's Taylor Widener saved his best for last.
Already blanking Chattanooga through six innings, Arizona's No. 3 prospect found an extra gear and struck out the side in the seventh as the Generals defeated the Lookouts, 2-1, on Thursday at AT&T Field. Widener posted zeros for the second straight start, stretching his scoreless streak to 16 innings.
"It's a really good feeling when you finally realize that all the work you've put in is starting to pay off for you," he said. "It's a little bit of a sigh of relief, but I mean it's something you got to keep going after."
Gameday box score
Widener (5-5) allowed three hits and struck out nine without allowing a walk in the outing. He relied on weak contact through the first two frames, recording just one of his first six outs via the punchout. The right-hander fanned No. 7 Twins prospect Brent Rooker to end the third inning and strand a runner on second base.
Brian Navarreto led off the fifth against the University of South Carolina product by lining a double to left field for the only extra-base hit against Widener. It also marked the final hit he gave up as the midseason All-Star retired the final nine batters he faced. Following Navarreto's two-bagger, Widener got Luis Arraez to fly out to center, then fanned Jimmy Kerrigan and Alex Perez swinging to escape the damage.
Widener channeled his days as a Gamecock, when he was mostly used out of the bullpen with runners on base, to guide him back to the dugout unscathed.
"I just take a deep breath and I tell myself that I've been there many a time," he said. "You just can't really pressure yourself too much or change anything."
Control of the four-seamer can often make or break a pitcher's night. It was Widener's golden ticket against the Lookouts.
"I really had my fastball command," the 23-year-old said. "It was a lot better than it had been previously. I was locating away, in and up. I think that helped out a lot."
It was back to the soft contact in the sixth for the 2016 12th-round pick of the Yankees as a pair of groundouts and a flyout brought him to the seventh at 85 pitches. Widener dispatched Jaylin Davis, Mitchell Kranson and Navarreto -- all swinging -- to put the exclamation point on his outing.
"I started having a little bit of a feeling that I was probably going to be done [after the seventh]," the 6-foot hurler said. "Those last three innings, I was pretty much giving it all I had, from that jam in the fifth inning on."
The plan heading into the game was to attack the strike zone with ferocity, which led him to throwing 75 of his 99 pitches for strikes.
"There had been a few games recently where I'd been falling behind some guys," Widener added. "That's where everybody's been getting the majority of their hits and the hard contact. So from the beginning tonight, we were going to attack the zone and try to get ahead of guys. The gameplan ended up working out tonight for us."
Balancing his stat line with three groundouts and six flyouts to complement the whiffs was by design.
"I think it's really important for me, because I can't always go for the strikeout," said Widener, who fanned a career-high 13 batters against Tennessee earlier this season. "As a starter, I have to try to maintain a little bit. I still have to be aggressive and just mix up. I think [catcher Matt Jones] did a really good job of calling the game tonight, so we did get some weak contact."
The performance was the latest example why the Aiken, South Carolina, native leads all of Double-A with 151 strikeouts in 119 1/3 innings. Widener lowered his ERA to 2.49 and stands first in the Southern League in WHIP (0.98) and opponents' batting average (.188).
"I don't really have a reaction toward that, to be honest," he said of his stats. "I've just got to keep pitching and try to get better each outing out there."
Jackson broke the scoreless tie in the sixth when Jose Vinicio crossed the plate on a wild pitch from Chattanooga starter Tyler Wells. Marty Herum provided an insurance run in the eighth with an RBI single.