Hickory Crawdads pitcher Austin Pettibone was a key component from the bullpen during the team’s drive to the first-half Northern Division title. The 24th -round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2014 out of UC Santa Barbara joined the Crawdads from extended spring on May 10. After a bumpy start to his Hickory career, he settled in to throw five-straight scoreless outings during which he allowed one hit and one walk with seven strikeouts in 9.1 innings.
However when pressed into service as a spot-starter in the first half, the results were less than stellar. Entering the current series against the Greenville Drive, Pettibone had a 2.76 ERA as a reliever. As a starter, the opposition had battered him for five runs on seven hits in 3.2 innings over two starts (one abbreviated due to a rain-suspended game).
But baseball is a game of opportunity and Pettibone took advantage of his Tuesday night when he filled Luis Ortiz’s rotation spot (due to a DL stint) against the Drive, the South Atlantic League’s best hitting and top-scoring club.
At first, it looked like the bubble would burst early when Greenville’s Mike Meyers tripled on the second pitch of the game. He scored on the fifth pitch, when a slider went to the backstop. The sixth pitch – another slider – was pulled into left by Michael Chavis.
That turned out to be the last hurrah for the Drive as the right-hander faced the minimum 18 hitters over the successive six innings and defeated Greenville 8-1.
Pettibone said that the wild pitch to score Meyers was almost a relief at the time.
“Once I had that wild pitch it was almost like time to restart and lock back in,” said Pettibone. “After that, it went the way it went.”
The way it went was Pettibone used a three-pitch mix (90-92 mph fastball, change and slider) to handcuff the Drive. Greenville put only one other runner on base – a walk in the third to Meyers that was erased on a double play.
Pettibone said the game plan coming in was to try to take advantage of a free-swinging lineup that is second in the SAL in strikeouts.
“We knew that they were an aggressive lineup,” Pettibone said. “So we were just keeping them off balance, throwing offspeeds for strikes early in the count and attacking late in it with the fastball.”
Of the 20 hitters he faced, seven started with an offspeed pitch – all for strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 16 hitters.
A starter with the Gauchos in college, the Yorba Linda, Calif. native said the adjustment from the bullpen into the rotation has been mostly minimal. The biggest change is trying to economize the number of pitches to each hitter.
“I’d say just pitching off my fastball, which has a little sink on it,” said Pettibone when asked about his approach moving into the rotation. “So, just trusting that and pitching to contact more so than trying to get swings-and-misses later in games when I had to come in out of the pen. That was a good start for me to get swings early in the count and minimize pitches so I was able to go deeper by that.”
On Tuesday, Pettibone threw more than four pitches to just five hitters with no more than seven to anyone. It allowed him to give the Crawdads a chance to rest some arms in the bullpen after a tough series against Lakewood.
The six-inning stint surpassed a five-inning start he had last summer at Eugene when he three-hit the Emeralds in his third-career start. His manager Corey Ragsdale was presently surprised in the longevity of the start, especially given that his longest outing of 2015 had been three innings.
“Just for the fact that he hadn’t been stretched out,” said Ragsdale. “When he has that many innings that went that quickly, we decided to go ahead and let him try it and see if he could do it. He had a quick sixth again.”
His final pitch of the night was a high-and-in fastball that Chavis swung through to end the sixth.
Pettibone said, “The second strike was a fastball in and he fouled it off his foot. Jose (catcher Jose Trevino) called it again and I trusted it. I just tried to get it in there and I did and he ended up swinging through it.”