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April 30, 2015 at 1:30 PM

Owens working through struggles while developing new pitch

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- Now sporting a 4.29 ERA with 17 walks in 21 innings, it has not been the start Henry Owens hoped to get off to through his first four outings in Pawtucket this season. In his first four starts last year in Portland, Owens owned a 2.25 ERA, including a six-inning, no-hit performance, and continued that dominance throughout the season. Success has followed him throughout his minor league career, and perhaps for the first time in his career, he faces adversity on the baseball field. All while he’s working to add a new pitch to his arsenal.

But the tall left-hander is determined to right the ship and there were hints in his performance Thursday that he is beginning to turn things around.

“I feel like I'm making strides just throwing consistently in the zone, trying to pound the strike zone as much as possible,” Owens said. “It's not to where I want to be still, but I have four days in between my next start to try to get closer.”

In Thursday’s outing, Owens managed to limit the damage after a rocky first inning that saw him give up three runs, one of which was unearned. He would give up one more run on hard hit homer that knocked him out of the game to begin the sixth, but he battled his command for a large part of the night. Still, his manager was encouraged.

“I thought he pitched well tonight overall,” Pawtucket skipper Kevin Boles said. “He ran into some trouble—he did have three walks—but we saw some better signs today. He had some weapons he could rely on, he had some swing-and-miss weapons. He got off to a rough start, but it's a credit to him to settle back in and get command of his pitches.”

In particular, his plus changeup elicited several silly-looking swing-and-misses. However, there was another secondary pitch that provided more intrigue, as he also featured a slider, a pitch that, before this season, he had not thrown in his professional career.

“I threw it a little bit in high school, just messing around with it. It's definitely a new pitch,” Owens said. “I'm still throwing it in the ‘pen, trying to get comfortable with it.”

He said that he threw two in this particular outing, both in the high-70s mph range. It is a raw pitch that lags behind his other three at this point, but something that could develop quickly for a pitcher like Owens.

“I flashed it in these four outings so far this year. I've thrown it well, and I'm happy with it. I hung one tonight, but as a whole it's been pretty good,” the 22-year-old said.

“He's a guy who can make the ball move,” Boles said. “He's got an interesting mix with that slider now. If he can pitch in with fastballs to right-handed hitters—I think that's the next thing we're looking for, that fastball command. But he's got the breaking ball and changeup, we're talking about a variety of weapons here for him.”

He flashed all of those weapons in this outing, with the changeup being the most effective. He gave up just one of the four hits he allowed in this start on the pitch, but unfortunately, the one hit was the home run that ran him from the game.

“I gave up the home run with it. That was the only hit,” Owens said. “[It was a] 3-2 pitch, tip my cap to him, that's a good hitter. He looked like he was kind of looking for it.”

The hitter was major league veteran Ian Stewart, who had a sacrifice fly and a double off of Owens earlier in the game, in addition to the home run. Outside of that pitch, the change looked strong, but his fastball command was spotty throughout. The changeup’s effectiveness relies on Owens’ ability to locate the fastball, particularly with it being in the 87-91 mph range Thursday on the McCoy Stadium radar gun.

“It all plays off the fastball command, it really does,” Boles said. “With his mix, the changeup is going to be more effective if he can establish his fastball.”

Outside of the first inning, Owens felt that he was able to locate his fastball better than in his other starts this season.

“Two out of the three walks were competitive, which I'm okay with. The leadoff walk ended up scoring the first inning, which is tough. But as a whole in the outing, I felt like I could move [my fastball] in or out at any time, so I felt good with the command,” he said.

Boles saw an adjustment that allowed him to move the fastball around a little bit more. “Most of the time when he missed with his fastball, he missed high and to his arm side. But he was able get himself back into it—maybe get a breaking ball over to get extension, and it helped him establish his fastball a little bit better tonight.”

He used his curveball less frequently than the fastball and changeup, but continues to refine the pitch that flashes potential, but has never been as consistent or devastating as the changeup.

“I threw some good curveballs that they fouled off, and some good ones low in the zone that they laid off,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the opponent. They came out and played well tonight.”

Many top prospects rocket through the minor leagues and meet resistance for the first time at the major league level. For Owens, the first real adversity of his career has come in Triple-A. Perhaps this can be a learning experience in bouncing back from a stretch of failure and help him adjust when he hits an inevitable rough patch in the majors.

“Even when I'm cruising through an outing, there's always a learning process, still developments to be made,” Owens said. “But failure just drives me to succeed.”

Photo credit: Henry Owens by Kelly O'Connor

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

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