Despite possessing a formidable four-pitch repertoire, Chandler Shepherd had made only three starts over his first four Minor League seasons. He didn't gain an immediate handle on things after transitioning into a starter's role this season but seemed to put it all together on Saturday night.
The 25th-ranked Red Sox prospect yielded four hits and struck out five over seven innings as Triple-A Pawtucket bested Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, 2-0, at McCoy Stadium. Shepherd (1-2) kept his slate clean for the first time in five starts this season, going deeper in a game than he ever had before and registering his first win as a starter.
"As a reliever, you're really trying to tighten up two pitches," Pawtucket pitching coach Kevin Walker said. "As a starter ... it's really utilizing your mix and knowing that you have to use your mix when you're trying to get through a lineup three times. He's starting to get that."
Video: PawSox's Shepherd records fifth K
Walker said that Shepherd was able to command his fastball on both sides of the plate and use his cutter, changeup and curveball to upset timing and keep the RailRiders off-balance.
"Tonight was really a culmination of all the work he's putting in through this first month-plus of the season," the pitching coach said. "It came together pretty nicely tonight."
Prior to this season, the 25-year-old's longest outing was four innings. He eclipsed that mark in his season debut and set a personal best with six three-run innings against Toledo on April 23. Saturday night's performance lowered his ERA to 5.33 with a .279 opponents' batting average over 25 1/3 frames.
"I never stopped throwing all my pitches. As a relief pitcher, you don't utilize everything," Shepherd told The Pawtucket Times last month. "Now I get to focus on things that I want to work on between outings. On a given day, you're more dialed in to what you're looking to address. I think that allows guys to be more comfortable and sets them up for success on that fifth day."
Gameday box score
The 2014 13th-round pick ascended to the Triple-A ranks as a reliever in 2016, his second full season. He had a 3.49 ERA over 205 2/3 innings out of the bullpen since 2014 and his first attempts to move into the starting rotation came this winter in the Mexican Pacific League. In seven starts with Hermosillo, Shepherd was 3-2 with a 4.09 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 31 strikeouts in 33 innings.
"I think he has the pitch mix to be a starter," Walker said. "It's about working on the routines of being a starter, the mindset of being a starter and ... learning to sequence his pitches better, reading swings, learning what hitters are trying to do against him and also learning his strengths."
On Saturday night, the Kentucky native found some early trouble, allowing a single to Yankees No. 10 prospect Thairo Estrada and a double to Major League veteran Adam Lind with one out in the opening inning. He bounced back with a blooper and a strikeout to end the threat before working a perfect second.
Shepherd plunked Clint Frazier with one out in the third and surrendered a leadoff single to Mike Ford in the fourth.
"He did a really good job of pitching inside ... and it helped his cutter today," Walker said, noting that throwing the fastball on the inner half opened the outer part of the plate for his cutter and curveball. "Those three pitches he had working tonight ... and the big thing for him tonight was he forced contact."
After Frazier's infield single in the fifth -- on the heels of successive strikeouts to start the inning -- Shepherd set down the final seven batters he faced, recording each out through the air, to finish with 87 pitches, 62 for strikes. His final out came on a brilliant over-the-shoulder catch by center fielder Aneury Tavarez, going back to the wall to track down Ryan McBroom's fly ball.
"It definitely was a great play," Walker said. "Really put us in position to put up a zero in that inning, and the bullpen held on after that."
Video: Pawtucket's Tavarez makes catch at the wall
Tyler Thornburg and Robby Scott both threw a scoreless inning to preserve the shutout. Mike Olt provided some offense with his fourth homer of the year and Jordan Betts added a run with an RBI single in the fifth.