Entering the season, Hickory Crawdads pitcher Erik Swanson was expected to work in a tandem arrangement with teammate Wes Swanson in the starting rotation. After a couple of turns through the rotation, that arrangement, for now, has been put on hold, due to an injury to another starting pitcher, Dillon Tate.
After a tough outing in the first start after he was spun off from tandem-mate Wes Benjamin (4.2 IP, 8 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 6 K), Swanson allowed three hits and struck out a career-high eight batters over seven innings – also a career high – as the Crawdads defeated the Lexington (Ky.) Legends 6-2 Friday night at L.P. Frans Stadium.
“With Tate out the past couple of starts, we kind of had to step up,” said Swanson after the game. “Wessey and I try to at least go those five or six innings to help our bullpen a little bit. Keep the pitch count down, and tonight I felt like I was attacking with the fastball, which helped me out with the pitch count a little bit and got the job done.”
The big right-hander out of Iowa Western CC was able to hold up his end of the bargain where innings were concerned, as he was able to pitch effectively to contact, or power up if need be. Of the 24 batters Swanson faced, 16 of them saw four or fewer pitches during a single plate appearance.
“Getting ahead is the biggest thing,” said Swanson, who threw first-pitch strikes to 14 hitters. “You get strike one on them, that’s a game-changer right there. It throws them off a little bit and gives you momentum to either get that second or third-pitch ground ball, or even get that strikeout within the first three or four pitches.” Three of the eight strikeouts came on the third or fourth pitch of the at-bat.
For the most part, Swanson was able to stick with a 94-95 mph fastball (topped out at 98 mph) and changeup (89-90) combination that was more than enough to keep the Legends hitters off balance. The fastball was especially effective to right-handed hitters as consistently buried the pitch on the outside corner at the knees. The change had enough deception to miss bats. By my count it missed seven.
He brought a slider (84-86) into the mix starting in the fourth inning, if only to give the hitters another pitch selection to ponder at the plate.
Said Swanson, “I didn’t really bring out my slider until the fourth or fifth, which was when I threw it the most. Then, I think I threw it once or twice in the third inning, or maybe the second inning. I was trying to go fastball/ changeup and save that third (pitch) as long as I can.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of the outing was the final inning, during which he struck out two. After working the count full to the leadoff hitter (RH) Josh Banuelos, Swanson whizzed a 97 mph heater for a called third strike on the outside corner.
After RH hitter Ben Johnson worked a 3-1 count against him, Swanson rebounded with a 95 mph on the corner at the hands. Johnson stayed alive by fouling off a 97 at the ends, but succumbed to Swanson by flailing through a 97 mph buzzsaw away at the knees for the strikeout. Swanson then needed a final fastball away to get Xavier Fernandez tried to pull, but it went meekly to Yeyson Yrizarri for the 6-3 play.
Of the 16 pitches Swanson threw in the final inning, 11 of them were at 95 mph and above.
Swanson said, “I was feeling pretty good tonight, fastball wise. The arm felt great. Going out for that seventh inning, I knew I had to be getting close. I tried to empty the tank a little bit, but keep a little bit in there, in case I needed to go back out for the eighth if Mintz needed me to. Everything was working tonight, so it was good.”
What will be interesting to watch is how Swanson will be used over the next several months. After 38 total innings of relief work over the past two seasons combined, Swanson is already at 21 in 2016. But at 6-3, 220, he physically appears to be a guy that could handle what looks to be a much heavier total workload, giving the parent club Texas Rangers some options on how to handle that increased labor.
Tate will be back in the rotation soon – perhaps as soon as his next turn, which would be scheduled for Monday. However with Tate and Martin expected for promotions later in 2016, and the season-opening work of Crawdads No. 3 starter Jonathan Tate, as well as Pedro Payano bucking for a promotion after his one-hitter on Wednesday, there could be room for a longer stretch of starts later in the season. That is, until the Rangers pull back the reins on the number of innings Swanson is to throw.