After noticing that Luis Escobar tended to run into trouble in the first inning, Class A Short Season West Virginia pitching coach Mark DiFelice decided to get rid of the frame.
At least mentally.
"We really started simulating the first inning in the bullpen, getting that inning out of the way so when he took the mound, it would almost be like his second inning," DiFelice said.
The Pirates' No. 16 prospect gave up one hit over six innings on Saturday, striking out seven and walking two, as the Black Bears blanked Auburn, 5-0, at Falcon Park.
"He's had a couple experiences early in the season where control-wise, he's been a little bit erratic. But he's done a good job of controlling his breathing," DiFelice said of the 20-year-old right-hander. "The game at his age speeds up on him, so for me, it's controlling his breathing, slowing everything down and for him to really focus in on getting the ball downhill and throwing strikes."
Although Escobar (6-5) started the game by plunking Daniel Johnson Jr. and walking Paul Panaccione, DiFelice saw the potential for a good outing.
"From pitch one, I could tell he was going to keep the ball down. I don't think it was until the second inning, I don't think I realized or he realized how good his changeup was," the pitching coach said. "He did a really good job of getting his changeup over for strikes and getting guys to chase it, kept the ball down [and] incorporated his breaking ball.
"[He] just filled up the strike zone. Something we've been working on all year with him is controlling his delivery, and to put it all together for the last game of the year was really great to see."
Escobar continued to work into and out of trouble before settling in for his strongest start of the season, in terms of his ability to throw all three pitches for strikes. It also was the second time this year -- and third in his career -- in which the Colombia native was able to strike out at least seven, one short of his career high set on Aug. 24 against Williamsport.
"He gave up six runs his last outing, so it's nice to see him shake that off as well and really put together a really good outing for the last game of the season and to put a bow on the season in general," DiFelice said.
Escobar finished his third pro season with a 2.93 ERA and 61 strikeouts over 67 2/3 innings -- all career bests. He also limited New York-Penn League foes to personal-best .208 average. But as much as he's grown by the numbers, DiFelice said he's proud of his maturity as he got used to the bright lights and routine of a new level.
"Pitching's an art and I've let him go, in a sense, as far as use his pitches, don't just be a one-dimensional pitcher," he said. "His fastball at times can reach 94, 97 [mph]. I think he's the best when he's at 92-95 and he's controlling the fastball down in the strike zone and really understanding his body along the way. So the maturity from there, from what it used to be 'til now, I think it has been one of those things this year where we can hone in on a routine for him."
Mike Wallace and Christian Mota completed the one-hitter by striking out one batter apiece over the final three frames.
Hunter Owen led the Black Bears offensively with three RBIs, while Ty Moore contributed three hits and drove in a run.