Even on a hitter-friendly circuit like the California League, Emilio Vargas has shown no fear in working up in the upper third of the zone when he needs a big out. With fortitude like that on the hill at Recreation Park on Tuesday, he turned in another eye-popping outing in what's already been a breakout season.
Vargas (7-4) struck out a season-high 13 while yielding two runs on three hits and a walk over five innings as Class A Advanced Visalia picked up a 6-4 victory over Modesto.
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Since it was the fourth time the Nuts have faced the D-backs No. 29 prospect this season, there was a measure of familiarity with the repertoire he wields on the mound. But Rawhide pitching coach Jeff Bajenaru said his starter displayed an extra level of intensity this time around.
"He just seemed to have a little more fire today, his fastball was coming in a little bit hotter," Bajenaru said. "I almost want to say he was a little effectively wild, even though he only had the one walk. He kind of ran up his pitch total a little early. But yeah, he was really effective."
Vargas has dominated from the outset of the season. He leads the California League with a 1.85 ERA and 126 strikeouts across 92 1/3 innings. Since the calendar flipped to July, the right-hander has amassed a 3.09 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 11 2/3 frames.
Getting back to the bump after allowing two runs over 6 2/3 innings at Lake Elsinore in his first start of the month, Vargas threw 59 strikes on 91 pitches. He relied heavily on his slider in his previous outing, so he served up a healthy diet of fastballs to the Modesto hitters Tuesday.
The 21-year-old struck out three in the first inning, but gave up the first run of the day when top Mariners prospect Kyle Lewis drilled a double into left field to score No. 16 prospect Luis Liberato. Vargas totaled 27 pitches in the first stanza, so from there on out, Bajenaru said his hurler was in "strikeout mode."
Vargas whiffed the side on 16 pitches in the second and added two more punchouts to begin the third before Liberato jumped on a first-pitch changeup and smoked a homer over the left-field wall.
It marked just the fifth time the Venezuela native gave up a homer this season, second-fewest among those in the league with at least 80 innings this season. And according to Bajenaru, that all comes back to Vargas continually being fearless but remaining effective high in the strike zone on a circuit that's already produced 586 roundtrippers this year.
"You talk about pitching up in the zone and people get scared of that," Bajenaru said. "But he pitches up in the zone effectively to the top part and above for swings and chases and also to change eye levels, which makes everything else that more effective. He hasn't given up too many home runs this year, some here and there, but that's to be expected.
"But the main thing for him is keeping him motivated and driven and motivated on the end goal -- having a good season at the end of the year, not just half of a year."
After that, Vargas set down seven of the final nine batters he faced. In the fifth, the righty worked around a fielding error by third baseman Drew Ellis, the No. 8 D-backs prospect, to punch out three in a frame for the third time of the night.
In his six-year career, Vargas has amassed 428 strikeouts in 422 1/3 innings. Seventeen outings (16 starts) into this season, he has already eclipsed his previous career high of 98 whiffs, set last season with Class A Kane County. Now approaching 100 frames for the second straight year, Vargas will be capped somewhere in the 140- to 150-inning range, according to Bajenaru.
Though the 6-foot-3, 200-pound pitcher has eight starts of five innings or fewer this season, he also went at least six in six outings. To Bajenaru, the key is getting Vargas into the sixth as much as possible until he hits his innings limit.
"Before this one, he went back-to-back into the seventh, and he's done that a couple of times," Bajenaru said. "But as long as he's giving us six, that's a strong start. His command was kind of an issue and he's walking guys. I think he threw four no-hit innings one time and that's all he went -- four innings because of pitch count. But he's done a great job of getting stuff with his delivery down and getting his direction back where his fastball has been commanded better and he is pitching deeper into games more consistently, so that is crucial."
After Vargas exited, relievers Matt Brill, Junior Garcia and Tommy Eveld combined for eight strikeouts as Visalia fanned 21 for the game, one shy of the California League record set by Salinas against Santa Barbara on May 20, 1964.
Dominic Miroglio finished 2-for-3 with a double, two RBIs and two runs scored to lead the Rawhide offense.