After a rough introduction to Double-A, Norge Ruiz seems to have gotten the hang of things.
The Oakland right-hander blanked Corpus Christi on three hits in a career-high seven scoreless innings in Midland's 11-1 rout at Whataburger Field on Thursday.
Gameday box score
For the 24-year-old Cuba native, who signed with Oakland in December 2016 for $2 million, it was the continuation of a positive trend. And it came as no surprise to RockHounds pitching coach Steve Connelly.
"He's a hard worker and he listens," Connelly said. "We looked back at the sequences and looked back at ownership of pitches. It was just a matter of going out there and doing it. He was executing his fastball in the top of the zone, using better lanes and better opportunity."
In his first Double-A start on April 8 against Tulsa, Ruiz got just five outs and was roughed up for eight earned runs on seven hits in a 12-7 loss. But his next start on April 14 at Springfield, the former Cuban National Team star allowed just one hit in five innings. He followed that by giving up one run in 5 1/3 innings against San Antonio on April 20.
Ruiz topped that Thursday, working seven innings for the first time in affiliated ball, and allowing singles only to Stephen Wrenn and Yordan Alvarez in the second inning and Taylor Jones in the third.
Connelly said his righty was firing at 92 mph and topping out at 94, a marked improvement from last year when elbow soreness ended his season early and he was sitting in the high 80s. Ruiz threw 95 pitches, also a career high in the United States, landing 57 for strikes.
"He had a few more pitches left in the tank, but there had been some long innings," Connelly said. "But it was a great outing and to go seven innings in under 100 pitches is great."
Scouts say Ruiz won't overpower hitters, relying more on natural sink on his fastball. He also possesses a changeup which scouts consider a plus pitch, as well as a slider that flashes plus when it's on, but right now is an average pitch, Connelly said.
"The changeup is a great pitch for him," said Connelly, who pitched briefly for Oakland in 1998. "And he had a good sinking fastball that when he straightens it out, it goes to the top of the zone. Norge has the ability to do different things, and it's fun to watch."
More fun than last season, which marked a struggle for the native of Camaguey as Ruiz compiled a 5.71 ERA in Class A Advanced and ended his season early due to the elbow troubles. He was suspended for 10 games with Stockton in July after a foreign substance was found on his left arm.
Ruiz got plenty of support Thursday, with designated hitter Brett Siddall leading the way, plating five runs and finishing a triple short of the cycle. Seth Brown doubled home three runs and Oakland's No. 18 prospect Tyler Ramirez added two hits.
Meanwhile, Ruiz is showing progress in his second year in the United States.
"He's adjusting," Connelly said. "Last year he had a lot of knocks, a lot of ups and downs. But he's getting stronger every outing.
"I told him, I don't care about you being a good Cuban pitcher or a good Double-A pitcher. I want to make you a good big league pitcher. With a four-pitch mix, he's definitely a big league pitcher [eventually]."