Fernando Romero has learned many lessons this season and lately, he's been taking opposing hitters to school.
"He's been working on a lot of stuff during the course of the year," Double-A Chattanooga pitching coach Ivan Arteaga said. "He's learning hitters and he's learning himself."
In a Southern League pitchers' duel on Tuesday night, the Twins' No. 4 prospect gave up two hits over five scoreless innings. On the other side, Jose Lopez struck out a career-high 11 over seven strong frames in Pensacola's 4-1 triumph at Blue Wahoos Stadium.
Neither factored in the decision.
Gameday box score
"He was impressive, to say the least," Arteaga said of Lopez. "He's got a feel and an understanding [for the game]. He was pitching in the top of the zone with his fastball, getting ahead with his breaking ball and changeup and slider. He competes. He battles every hitter."
For Romero (7-6), the scoreless outing continued a streak dating to June 9 in which he's kept opponents to two runs or fewer over six starts. Since June 25, he's surrendered a total of two runs over 19 innings, bringing his ERA to a season-low 2.78.
"First and foremost, it's been his fastball command [that's improved]," Arteaga said. "That's been the main focus. But at the same time, he's been working on making the pitches he wants to make, whether it's inside or up in the zone or [wherever]. He's also been expanding the zone and identifying [hitters'] tendencies."
The 22-year-old right-hander started the game by walking Tyler Goeddel, then retired 10 in a row before giving up a single to top Reds prospect Nick Senzel. Catcher Carlos Paulino nailed Senzel trying to steal second and Romero ended the fourth with another of his five punchouts.
Video: The Lookouts' Fernando Romero wraps up the fifth
"Once he got going, he was pretty good," the Lookouts pitching coach said. "He [got into a little bit of a rhythm] and he was up to what we've seen from him lately."
In the meantime, Lopez (3-1), who was promoted from the Class A Advanced Florida State League at the end of May, struck out the side in the first and third and fanned two in the second. Still, Romero made an impression on the 23-year-old righty.
"We were going back and forth," Lopez said. "He was throwing the ball really well. Obviously, he's a guy with electric stuff."
Lookouts outfielder Max Murphy broke through against Lopez with a solo homerl in the fifth and Romero came back with a shutdown inning. He erased a leadoff base hit by Reds No. 18 prospect Nick Longhi by getting Gabriel Guerrero to bounce into a double play, then fanned No. 3 prospect Aristides Aquino to end the frame. He threw 43 of 63 pitches for strikes.
Lopez, who lost to Chattanooga when he gave up four runs over five innings on June 25, worked around two hits in the sixth and wrapped up his evening with a 1-2-3 seventh.
"When I faced them that first time, it was rough, so I wanted to go out and attack," the Seton Hall product said. "The four days between starts, I'm speaking to guys who have been here before and had some success. I was talking to Austin Ross and we were talking about how it's important to throw inside, but you don't just go out and do it. It's kind of a skill. He told me to take a few breaths and relax and try to get the pitch there. It's not about trying to put anything extra on it or take anything off it, because the location will do the effect for you."
Video: The Blue Wahoos' Jose Lopez fans his 11th
In eight Double-A games, including six starts, Lopez has a 3.43 ERA and 49 strikeouts over 42 innings.
"[Lots of strikeouts is] something you're proud of at the end of the day, but sometimes depending on the way the ball is rolling, sometimes those will get fouled off and sometimes they'll be groundouts," he said. "It's really not a thing you have too much control over. [Catcher Joe Hudson] and I had a game plan to attack inside, especially early, and we were putting them away the way we needed to."
The 2014 sixth-round pick wasn't too concerned about the prospect of Chattanooga keeping Pensacola scoreless all night.
"[Romero] was very good. I have to tip my hat to him," he said, "but I try not to worry, because I know our guys are going to put up good at-bats and maybe explode for four in an inning, like they did."
The Blue Wahoos sent eight men to the plate in the eighth, with Goeddel delivering the key blow, a two-run double.