Red Sox minor league roundup: More no-hit magic from Henry Owens; explaining Dan Butler's surge; Allen Webster in the zone; Manuel Margot returns; Luis Diaz dazzles

August 17, 2013 - 7:16 am

If there were any questions about whether Henry Owens was the top pitching prospect in the Red Sox system, the left-hander has done a pretty compelling job of answering them. The 21-year-old continued his amazing late-summer performance on Friday night by throwing five no-hit innings for Double-A Portland. He did permit an unearned run in the first inning -- a wild frame in which Owens walked three, uncorked a wild pitch, encountered a passed ball and recorded all three outs by strikeout -- but settled down to retire the final 12 batters he faced, including the last five by strikeout. In five innings of work, the 2011 supplemental first-round pick (No. 36 overall) allowed four baserunners (three walks and the HBP) but punched out 10 while recording four outs via groundball. And so, his overmatched opponents from Harrisburg managed to hit just one ball into the outfield against him. They swung and missed 22 times at his 94 offerings, reminiscent of a spring outing when he struck out 13 of 15 batters he faced. For most pitchers, the start would have represented the highlight of a season. For Owens, it's now become commonplace. It's the third time in the 6-foot-7 pitcher's last seven starts (dating back to his time in High-A Salem) that he hasn't allowed a hit. In that seven-start stretch between two levels, he has a 1.32 ERA, 13.0 strikeouts per nine innings and 4.4 walks per nine. Opponents are hitting .112 with a .242 OBP and .149 slugging mark against him over that period. Clearly, Owens has not been fazed by his promotion to Double-A. In three starts since that move, he has a 1.20 ERA with 29 strikeouts and six walks in 15 innings -- a ludicrous 17.4 strikeouts per nine innings. And he's shown some ability to rein in his walks total, having knocked down his free passes to 3.6 per nine innings. Friday's outing showed the ability to make in-game adjustments to surmount early-command struggles and attack the strike zone, leading to his complete domination over his final four innings. "I felt like I was ready to face these hitters and I felt like I could compete," Owens told of his transition to Double-A. "That goes back to the confidence level. You can never be timid. Everyone says it's a very mental game and that the game is not for the mentally weak. There's a difference between flamboyantly loud confidence and quiet confidence. "I like to lead by example. I try to inflict fear in batters so they don't know what page I'm on. And that's not fear like, 'He's a big guy, look at the size of him,' but more like, 'I've swung and missed at the first two pitches, I wonder what he's going to throw next.' " He's seemingly accomplishing that, as he has for much of the year. On the year, opponents are now hitting just .176 against the lefty (the third lowest rate in the minors among full-season pitchers). He's punching out 11.4 batters per nine innings. Control is unquestionably a question for a pitcher who is issuing 4.4 walks per nine innings, but considering that he just turned 21 and is still making strength gains that are permitting him the ability to repeat his delivery with increased consistency, he appears capable of progress in that regard. Indeed, it is Owens' strength gains and ability to sustain his performance throughout this year that have been among the most noteworthy elements of his year. The fact that he's been so dominant at this stage of the year -- at a time when he's matched his number of outings (23) from last year while blowing past last year's 101 2/3 innings total to reach 119 2/3 frames -- represents an impressive payoff on his offseason and in-season conditioning work. Owens is still dominating opponents with all three of his pitches -- fastball (a pitch that averaged 91 mph and produced 11 swings and misses on Friday), changeup (9 swings and misses on Friday) and curve -- even as he works deeper than ever into a season and even as he faces more advanced competition than ever. He likely has two remaining starts in Double-A, which should push him to about 130 innings pitched for the year, a couple final opportunities to punctuate what has been a spectacular season that points to a pitcher who looks like a potential long-term building block of the Red Sox rotation. TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 7-6 WIN VS. LOUISVILLE (REDS) (BOX) -- Allen Webster was solid again on Friday, albeit not very efficient. Webster threw 100 pitches in just five innings, allowing two runs (one earned) on four hits, a walk and a hit batter. He also struck out seven, including a strike out of the side in the second inning. Webster was touching 98 with his fastball, which sat around 95. He elicited 11 swings and misses. Over his last five starts, Webster has looked like he's gotten back on track. He's posted a 2.54 ERA in 28 1/3 innings, with the opposition batting .202/.272/.279 against him. Most notably, he's cut down on the walks (an average of 2.5 per nine innings) while racking up the strikeouts (an average of 10.5 per nine innings). He's also cut down on the hit batters, plunking two in his last five starts, as opposed to 11 batters over the course of his previous six Triple-A starts. Webster's final strikeout on Friday night was his 100th of the year in 86 2/3 Triple-A innings. With the win, Webster improved to 7-4 and has cut his ERA down to 3.84 and his WHIP to 1.154 in starts for Pawtucket. -- Catcher Dan Butler cooled off a bit since batting .477 over the course of 12 games, but he's back to driving in runs and getting on base. Butler clubbed his 13th home run of the season, surpassing his previous season-high of 12 home runs in 2011. He also drove in his 41st and 42nd runs. Manager Gary DiSarcina credits Butler's offensive emergence to the fact that he's getting regular at-bats. "Number one, he'€™s getting playing time. When Ryan Lavarnway was here, it was two games for Ryan, one for Butler. Now it'€™s reversed. He'€™s getting more playing time," DiSarcina said. "I think with reps and with at-bats, being in the groove, as well as working hard with [hitting coach Dave] Joppie on his hitting routine, he'€™s really strict with it, he'€™s cleaned up his bat path a lot, early in the season he was hitting a lot of weak fly balls to right field, now he'€™s driving that ball to right-center. He'€™s turning on some pitches on the inside part of the plate and hitting some home runs, but it'€™s playing time and it'€™s hard work and for me, it'€™s just getting better pitches to hit, too, and that comes with seeing more pitches and playing." DiSarcina's theory certainly appears to make sense. Since Lavarnway was recalled to the Red Sox on June 18, Butler has hit .315/.392/.606 with seven doubles and 10 home runs in 37 games, as compared to .218/.329/.370 with nine doubles and three home runs in 36 games prior to Lavarnway's promotion. Butler is now slugging almost .500 on the year (.492), something he hasn't done since his time in Single-A. -- Brayan Villarreal, acquired from the Tigers in the Jake Peavy trade, threw a perfect inning and a third to close out a one-run game, and earn a save in his second appearances with the PawSox. It took Villarreal just 12 pitches to retire four batters. He entered the game in the eighth inning with a runner on, after Pedro Beato had allowed four runs to score on four hits in the inning. Villarreal has allowed one hit and one walk in 2 1/3 innings since coming off the disabled list. -- David Ross continued his rehab assignment in Pawtucket after receiving the day off on Thursday. Ross went 0-for-4 with a strikeout and caught the full nine innings behind the plate. Ross is scheduled to catch another full game on Saturday, and should be reevaluated by the club on Sunday. He's 0-for-9 in three games in Pawtucket and 1-for-12 so far in five minor league rehab games. DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 4-1 WIN AT HARRISBURG (NATIONALS) (BOX) -- Catcher Christian Vazquez went 2-for-3 with a double and a walk, extending his hitting streak to 12 games, during which he's hitting .429/.455/.490. He's shown little power (three doubles) during the run, but the simple fact that, as a catcher with almost a full season's worth of games (83) under his belt, he's still showing a solid approach at this stage of the year is impressive. The 22-year-old now has reached base in 21 straight contests, with a .385/.432/.462 line over that period, to improve his overall line this season to .286/.369/.395. While Vazquez displays Gold Glove-caliber tools behind the plate, it is worth noting one fly in the defensive ointment: Vazquez did have a passed ball on Friday (with Owens on the mound), his 17th of the year. That reflects in part on the fact that the Sea Dogs featured a knuckleball pitcher (Charlie Haeger) for a dozen starts, but his passed balls have not been limited to Haeger's presence on the mound. Some of that is a product of his aggressiveness trying to pick off runners, some of it occurs because of lapses looking the ball into the glove but sometimes it is an indication of stuff and late action. The overall total is high, but for now, the Sox view such lapses as outstanding teaching tools as Vazquez advances his apprenticeship towards the big leagues. -- Third baseman Garin Cecchini went 1-for-3 with a single and a walk, extending his streak of games reaching base by hit or walk to 25. The 22-year-old is now hitting .264/.387/.297 during the run, showing the ability to make an above-average offensive impact thanks to his on-base ability even in times when his average and power have been sapped. The 2010 fourth-rounder has a .410 OBP in 49 games with Portland, and he remains in a pitched battle for status as the foremost on-base machine in the minors. His .443 OBP (on top of a .325 average and .477 slugging mark), behind only Allen Dykstra, whose .449 OBP has been achieved as a 26-year-old spending his entire year in the Eastern League. HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 2-1 WIN AT WINSTON-SALEM (WHITE SOX) (BOX) -- Thought Sean Coyle went 0-for-3, the 21-year-old second baseman continues to display some of the patience that often seemed in short supply earlier in the year, before a lengthy stint on the DL. Coyle walked twice, the second straight contest in which he's taken a pair of free passes, and in four contests since returning to Salem, he has six walks and three strikeouts in 22 plate appearances. The six walks (in four games) are one shy of his total from 21 games in May, and match the number of walks he negotiated in 15 April contests. Granted, Coyle is 1-for-16 in the four-game stretch, but given that his ability to impact the ball and produce power is something of a known quantity, the possibility that Coyle might wrap up the season with a display of increased strike zone management would represent a considerable building block heading into 2014. -- Feats of Mookie: Mookie Betts went 1-for-3 with a single and walk. Among all Sox minor leaguers, the 20-year-old ranks seventh in batting average for the year (a .292 combined mark between Single-A and High-A), fourth in OBP (.401), ninth in slugging (.470) and first in steals (33). -- Catcher Blake Swihart went 1-for-4 with a walk, and the 21-year-old switch-hitter now owns a .282/.351/.406 line on the year including a .333/.340/.417 line in August, at a time when he's registered 89 games caught -- blowing past the 63 games behind the plate he had in his first full pro season in 2012. SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 2-1 WIN VS. LEXINGTON (ROYALS) (BOX) -- Right-hander Luis Diaz has been dominant since getting back to Greenville. The 21-year-old fired seven shutout innings, allowing two hits and three walks while punching out nine, on Friday, his ninth outing in his last 10 starts in which he's allowed one or no runs. In that 62-inning period, he has a 0.87 ERA with 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings, 1.6 walks per nine and an opponents' line of .176/.215/.208. In 15 total games with Greenville, he has a 7-4 record, 2.05 ERA, 86 strikeouts and 20 walks in 88 innings. -- Shortstop Jose Vinicio went 0-for-3 on Friday, and is now 0-for-16 in his last five contests and 3-for-41 (.073) with no walks in his last 11 games. In 95 games this year, he's hitting .210/.244/.278 -- down from a promising line of .277/.320/.371 in Greenville last year -- and the 20-year-old has been woeful (.144/.172/.189) while batting right-handed. SHORT-SEASON SINGLE-A LOWELL SPINNERS: 7-6 WIN (10 INNINGS) VS. HUDSON VALLEY (RAYS) (BOX) -- Designated hitter Manuel Margot propelled the Spinners to a 10th inning walk-off victory in his first game off the disabled list, knocking in the winning run with a two-out single. Margot had cooled off offensively prior to landing on the DL, hitting just .080 with a .207 OBP in his last seven games, but went 2-for-5 with a walk on Friday. Margot has really held his own as an 18-year-old in a league that includes many pitchers and hitters who were drafted out of college, hitting .261/.350/.311 in 33 games in the pitching-dominated league. The power Margot displayed in the DSL last season (four home runs, seven triples and 10 doubles) hasn't quite carried over to Lowell, but his on-base numbers are still strong. Margot has drawn 17 walks while striking out 25 times. He's also been a threat on the bases, swiping 13 bases in 18 chances after stealing 33 a year ago. -- Starter Ty Buttrey gave up seven hits in his five innings of work, but managed to limit the damage to only one run. Buttrey has allowed no more than three runs in any start since his very first outing of the season, and has allowed two runs over his last nine innings. The 20-year-old is 3-3 on the season with a 2.53 ERA in 10 starts, striking out 24 while walking 16. -- Outfielder Kevin Mager continues to hit well since returning to Lowell, going 2-for-4 with a walk, a triple and two RBI on Friday. The triple was his second of the season. Mager is hitting .290/.379/.403 with two home runs and 10 doubles for the Spinners. Prior to the two-hit day, Mager -- a New York-Penn League All-Star -- was slumping, hitting just .156 with one extra-base hit in his last nine contests, though he did draw six walks in that timeframe. ROOKIE LEVEL GULF COAST LEAGUE RED SOX: 7-3 LOSS VS. GCL TWINS (BOX) -- Outfielder Jordon Austin went 2-for-5 with a pair of doubles and a steal (as well as three strikeouts). The 2013 sixth-rounder has a .227 average but a solid .361 OBP along with 10 steals in as many attempts in his first exposure to pro ball. -- Jon Denney, the Sox' third-round pick this year, went 0-for-1 but with three walks while serving as DH. Denney has a .376 OBP on the strength of 18 walks in 25 games. DOMINICAN SUMMER LEAGUE RED SOX: 15-1 WIN AT DSL INDIANS (BOX) -- After a slow start, shortstop Javier Guerra has combined credible offense with his advanced defense. The 17-year-old hit .146/.336/.220 through his first 24 contests, but since then, with a 2-for-4 line that included a walk on Friday, he's hitting .310/.366/.336 in his last 32 games. -- Third baseman Victor Acosta, 17, went 2-for-4 with his first triple of the season and a walk. He leads his team with 17 extra-base hits, a reflection of the plus bat speed and strong wrists that he shows.