The key to Albert Abreu's recent dominance has been his newfound consistency and efficiency.
"He's set out to work to get as many guys out in four or less pitches as possible," Class A Quad Cities pitching coach Chris Holt said. "He's really been challenging himself [with that plan]. Sometimes [we'll get into deeper counts] with foul balls, but he stays on [the hitter] with the plan and continues to attack with quality pitches, both in and out of the zone."
Abreu carried out the game plan on Sunday as he retired 16 of 27 batters on four pitches or fewer.
The Astros' No. 10 prospect gave up a pair of singles over a career-high eight scoreless innings, striking out five and walking two, before the River Bandits were beaten in walk-off fashion by Kane County, 2-1, at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark.
"He repeated his delivery out of both the windup and the stretch extremely well," Holt said. "He maintained his rhythm and tempo and kept a good feel for keeping his angle to the knees and attacking the zone with and without runners on base.
"He set out to use his changeup more and get that going. He let that get away from him a little bit in the last couple outings. He wanted to make a point to re-establish the quality in the changeups he had been throwing early on in the season and take that in as a primary weapon, which he ended up doing quite well tonight, especially against a heavily stacked left-handed lineup."
Abreu walked Raymel Flores leading off the bottom of the first, gave up a one-out single to Matt Railey in the third and a two-out single to Austin Byler in the fourth before retiring the Cougars in order through the sixth.
The 20-year-old right-hander walked Byler with one out in the seventh, then worked a 1-2-3 eighth. He threw 62 of 97 pitches for strikes.
"He really has four top-notch weapons," Holt said. "His fastball command has really come along nicely with both two-seam and four-seam as of late. He has a number of ways to attack the zone to get ahead and to put guys away. He's continued to be good at the simple things instead of letting things get too complicated or doing too much."
Abreu has given up one earned run on nine hits over 24 innings while striking out 20 in his last four outings. After compiling a 5.45 ERA in April and May, he's lowered that figure to 2.73 and fanned 28 in 29 2/3 frames across June and July.
"He's really worked to not try to trick guys and pitch away from contact but instead force guys to swing at his best pitches in the zone and out of the zone, when it's time," Holt said. "I think the biggest thing for him has been to continue attacking with his plan with runners on base or if he happens to walk somebody or if he doesn't get a call from the umpire, really just maintaining focus on attacking batters, no matter what's happening in the game. When he does that, he executes at a higher rate."
Abreu was in line for the win after Dexture McCall snapped a scoreless deadlock with an RBI single in the eighth. But Joe Munoz delivered a two-run double in the ninth off reliever Adam Whitt (2-2) to give Kane County its second straight win.
Austin Mason (1-0) got the win after Cody Clark gave up one hit over 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief for the Cougars.