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September 4, 2014 at 2:57 PM

Edwin Escobar impresses with dazzling playoff performance

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- It hasn’t been an easy season for Edwin Escobar. After being ranked a Top 100 prospect this offseason, he has dealt with a down year statistically at Triple-A and a trade that sent him across the country. But in the most important minor league game he has pitched this year, the left-hander came through with flying colors. Taking the hill for Game 1 of Pawtucket’s International League semifinal series, Escobar tossed a shutout through eight innings Wednesday evening.

“Escobar was phenomenal,” PawSox manager Kevin Boles said after the outing. “He was terrific. It looked like he dialed it up when he got ahead in the count, but I thought he utilized a mix. I thought the tempo with him and [catcher Blake] Swihart was terrific tonight. It looked like he had life to his fastball, had a late jump to it, feel for a changeup, and we saw a sharper breaking ball tonight.”

With a 4.94 combined ERA for Pawtucket and Fresno of the Pacific Coast League entering the game, the performance certainly represented a positive step in the development of the 22-year-old recently acquired by the Red Sox in the trade that sent Jake Peavy to San Francisco.

“Everything was working today, even my curveball. And my changeup was good,” Escobar said. “They all worked for me today.”

Though the night was a resounding success overall for the young lefty, the performance was blemished slightly by the fact that he couldn’t shut the door in the ninth. He recorded the first out of the inning on one pitch, then struck out the second batter on 95-mph heat (via the McCoy Stadium radar gun). But with two outs and Pawtucket clinging to a one-run lead, Syracuse’s number-three hitter, Brandon Laird, promptly deposited an Escobar pitch over the fence in left-center, tying the game at one apiece.

Escobar entered the ninth with just 87 pitches, but with the score so close, some questioned whether it would have been wise to bring in a reliever to close it out. The manager didn’t see it that way.

“[Escobar] was going back out. He had earned that right,” Boles said. “The way he had gone through the lineup, and the pitch count was right. He just made one mistake, and it happened to be to Laird. He did his job though. We had to let him try to finish that game because of what he was doing and how off balance the hitters were. I thought he did a terrific job.”

Escobar chalked up the mistake to pitch selection and an adjustment by Laird. “He was a little bit late with my fastball today, so I went with the game plan and he beat me right there.”

Pawtucket went on to win the game in the tenth on a walk-off single by Garin Cecchini, so the home run did not prove costly for the PawSox, who took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series. Boles was quick to say that the late longball does not diminish Escobar’s overall performance.

“Laird's a quality hitter, he's one of the best hitters in this league,” he said. “[Escobar] left a pitch out over the plate, and Laird was able to impact the ball. But I thought Escobar was terrific tonight.”

Though it may not have taken away from his stellar outing on Wednesday, home runs have been an issue for Escobar all season. He has now given up 20 this season, including last night’s, after giving up just five all of last season. Some of that can be attributed to playing in the hitter-friendly PCL, where he gave up 16 longballs in 111 innings prior to the trade, but he has allowed them at a similar rate since joining the PawSox rotation, giving up three in 27 1/3 innings over five regular season starts.

“I have just been continuing to throw my game, throw strikes,” he said on how he is combating the home run problem. “Sometimes I have gotten unlucky with that, and sometimes I've missed my spot too. Triple-A has a lot of good hitters, veteran players. Nothing I can do about that.”

Another issue for Escobar this season has been putting right-handed batters away. On the year, right-handers have hit a whopping .323 against him, while lefties have hit just .201. In fact, all 20 homers against him have come at the hands of righties. Outside of the home run to the right-handed Laird, he showed growth in handling this weakness effectively on Wednesday.

“I thought he was able to utilize his breaking ball down and in on right-handed hitters, and he got their feet moving a little bit. Then he was able to pitch with his fastball away,” Boles said. “I thought he had a good complement with his changeup. They're an aggressive lineup, but he was able to mix up his tempo a little bit and mix up the velocity. Again, they weren't really comfortable in there. He'd show them in early, then he had some finish also with the breaking ball with two strikes. He was very unpredictable tonight.”

“I attacked the strike zone [against right-handers],” Escobar said. “I was pitching inside a lot. My fastball was good today, the [velocity] was good.”

His velocity was indeed strong throughout and held steady late into the game, sitting mostly in the 91-93 mph range, but hitting 95 in the ninth inning, on the relatively reliable McCoy Stadium gun at least. He said he felt strong late in the game, and also has not been hit hard by fatigue at this late point in the season.

After being ranked the 64th-best overall prospect in baseball coming into the season by Baseball America, Escobar was promoted aggressively to Triple-A to begin the year by San Francisco after just 10 starts in Double-A. Should he be able to carry over the success from Wednesday’s performance to next season, Escobar, still young for Triple-A, may find himself quickly rising back up the prospect charts.

Photo credit: Edwin Escobar from MiLB.com

Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegelSP.