The sample size may still be small, but early returns on Brent Honeywell's season are looking dominant.
Coming off a start in which he fanned a career-high 12 batters in six innings, Tampa Bay's No. 2 prospect surrendered a run on one hit and struck out eight over seven frames to lead Double-A Montgomery to a 5-2 win over Birmingham on Wednesday.
Video: Honeywell notches 12th K
"Nights like these are something he expects out of himself and we've learned to expect it out of him because he sets the bar so high," Montgomery pitching coach R.C. Lichtenstein said. "He was putting hitters away with whatever pitches he wanted to."
After a clean first frame, Honeywell made his only real mistake in the second when Birmingham's Courtney Hawkins took him deep on a 2-2 fastball that the 22-year-old left up in the zone. Honeywell quickly responded by retiring the next three hitters he faced, two via the strikeout.
"The impressive thing is that's who he is, the way he responds is the difference-maker," Lichtenstein added. "His response is always about getting locked back in and attacking with the next pitch. He doesn't allow that pitch to make him believe there's something wrong and have him start to pitch differently. He understands that in the game of baseball you're going to give up runs. It never affects him. That's what makes him the type of guy who will impact a Major League rotation really soon."
Honeywell opened up the third by striking out Mason Robbins on three pitches. He then issued a walk to Hunter Jones, but batterymate Nick Ciuffo cut Jones down trying to steal second. Eddy Alvarez got aboard via another base on balls, but the 2014 first-round pick quickly made amends with a pickoff move that caught the Barons shortstop leaning to end the threat.
The fourth provided another hurdle for Honeywell, who had to work around a fielding error by shortstop Andrew Velasquez and a walk. With two on and nobody out, the top Rays pitching prospect found his groove and retired the last 11 batters he saw, culminating with two strikeouts in the seventh.
"His command and execution got better as the game went along," Lichtenstein said. "That's what separates him from others. He just knows how to follow a gameplan and go with what works well for him."
The Walters State Community College product also was efficient, having thrown 58 of 93 pitches for strikes and inducing five groundouts.
"When he's putting the fastball where he wants, then he's going to get bad contact and quick outs," Lichtenstein added. "When he works down, he gets those ground balls. When he's really on, he's on the plate better and down cleaner with his fastball."
Since his promotion to Montgomery last July, the Georgia native has amassed a 2.24 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP while recording 73 strikeouts in 72 1/3 innings.
"He showed flashes of being able to dominate a ballgame last year," Lichtenstein said. "And he's taking to heart the fact that we're trying to develop the skills for him to impact the big leagues when he gets there. So he's come here this year with a focus on trying to command his fastball better. One of the bigger things that happened last year was that he was willing to go to his offspeed stuff more often and that's more of an A-ball mentality, getting away from your fastball. He's been committed to letting his other pitches play off his fastball."
Since being drafted, Honeywell has created a buzz with his screwball, but his pitching coach was adamant in saying it's just one of five good pitches that MLB.com's No. 28 overall prospect brings to the mound on a nightly basis.
"It's a good pitch, but he's got five good pitches," Lichtenstein said. "His fastball is dominant and his changeup is probably his second-best pitch. Since he throws a screwball, it's something everyone talks about, but make no doubt that Brent Honeywell would be an impact pitcher even if he didn't have a screwball."
Granden Goetzman hit his second homer of the year -- a solo shot -- in the second.
Riley Unroe doubled and drove in the winning run with a sacrifice bunt in the eighth. The 21-year-old second baseman is hitting .417 through his first four Double-A games.
Jordan Guerrero allowed a run on two hits and one walk while striking out seven in 6 1/3 innings for Birmingham.
Connor Walsh (0-1) gave up four runs -- three earned -- on a hit and a walk in two-thirds of an inning.