A discussion between Class A Kane County pitching coach Rich Sauveur and D-backs pitching coordinator Dan Carlson helped turn Emilio Vargas' season around.
"We [decided to take] one pitch away from him," Sauveur said. "We took the curveball away from him. It just seemed that was a pitch he kept getting hurt with, and game in and game out, it just seemed three or four hits during that outing were because of the curveball. I told him I didn't feel he needed that pitch, so we just went with fastball, slider and changeup. He seemed to take off with that."
Vargas had a 1-4 record and 5.30 ERA after his first seven starts with the Cougars. Since the curveball was removed from his repertoire, he's lowered his ERA to 3.48. And on Saturday, he put on a downright historic performance.
The D-backs prospect recorded a career-high 17 strikeouts and took a one-hit shutout into the ninth inning as the Cougars held on for a 4-2 victory over Quad Cities at Modern Woodmen Park.
"He's been throwing the ball really well over his last five or six starts, I think it just came to a boil tonight," Sauveur said. "His slider was very sharp tonight and the fastball seemed to be jumping out of his hand. [Quad Cities] seemed to be out of the strike zone when needed. He located the fastball better tonight than ever before and his slider in fastball counts was outstanding.
"The confidence factor was very big and it felt like he had one good game and then two and then he started rolling. Tonight, he just felt so good when he came in, and I think the team was having a blast with this game in the dugout. I think Emilio felt that and he was enjoying it."
In the longest outing of his career, the 20-year-old right-hander struck out at least two batters in every inning but the sixth and eighth and fanned the side three times. He ended up allowing two runs -- one earned -- on two hits without issuing a walk over eight-plus frames.
"The game plan that we put together [for tonight was] pitching a couple of the guys backwards, locating the fastball to both sides of the plate and being aggressive with this team," Sauveur said. "[Quad Cities] is a very aggressive hitting team, but he challenged them."
Backed by a three-run first inning, Vargas (4-6) struck out the side in the first, third and fourth innings, allowing just a one-out single to Jake Rogers in the third.
The native of the Dominican Republic cruised into the ninth having retired 17 consecutive River Bandits but surrendered a leadoff triple to Rogers, who scored a batter later on shortstop Sergio Alcantara's error. That effectively ended Vargas' night after a career-high 98 pitches, including 76 for strikes.
"I've seen a lot of things happen here in the last month and a half," Sauveur said. "His velocity seems to have ticked up, the K/BB ratio is up and his confidence is also up. Coming down to the end of this year, I think it's going to be a very, very nice adjustment to go into the offseason and come into Spring Training knowing how he pitched last season."
Austin Mason recorded the final three outs for his third save of the season and first in the Midwest League.
Fernery Ozuna hit a two-run homer in the Cougars' three-run first, while Ramon Hernandez went 2-for-4 with an RBI triple.
Quad Cities starter Enrique Chavez (0-1) gave up three runs on six hits and two walks with four strikeouts over four innings in his Midwest League debut.
Rogers finished 2-for-3 and was the only River Bandit who did not strike out.
Mack Burke is a contributor with MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @macburke18_MiLB