Lake Elsinore, Calif. -- The Storm pitching staff was expected to be one of the highlights of the San Diego Padres organization this year. And while injuries have held back high-profile prospects Anderson Espinoza and Jake Nix, the staff has, indeed emerged as the class of the Cal League.
Eric Lauer and a trio of relievers held the Modesto Nuts to just six hits and one unearned run Friday night, dropping their league-best team ERA to 3.32 - nearly a half run better than the next-best club. Lauer had all four of his pitches working as he lowered his own ERA to 1.89 and pushed his strikeout total to 41 - both good for fourth on the circuit and second on his staff.
"Everything felt good," said Lauer. "Being able to throw anything at any time helps out a lot, and when the guy back there is calling a great game, you just feel comfortable with whatever he puts down and you throw where he puts the glove. That's what we try to do every day. Some days certain pitches are working and today was just a day when I felt like I could throw anything."
Last year's first-rounder showed better velocity than he had in earlier outings this year, touching 93, though he mostly sat at 90. In the third inning, he struck out the side, getting the final strike of the three at-bats with his change, slider and fastball, then broke out his first downer curve of the night to end the fourth with a strikeout.
"The [curve] was probably the least feel of the day - which it has been the last couple weeks. Just being able to pull out a different pitch later in the game to throw them off a little more is something you like to have in your back pocket."
Cruising into the fifth inning, Lauer got a one-out grounder to short that Javier Guerra threw away for his fifth error of the season. Lauer then made one of his few mistakes of the night, grooving a first-pitch fastball to Braden Bishop, who crushed it off the wall in left-center for an RBI triple.
The 21-year-old lefty then gave up his only walk of the day, but was able to come back with a strikeout and then induce a fly out to end the threat.
In all, he yielded five hits and struck out seven - the fourth time in six starts he's whiffed at least that many. He needed 98 pitches to get through his five innings of work after using 97 and 99 to go seven in each of his last two starts.
"We faced a very good hitting team," said manager Edwin Rodriguez. "I think with the same approach from Lauer and the same stuff, he could have easily gone seven innings. But these guys fouled off a lot of pitches, so five innings was enough."
While Lauer was dealing, the Storm offense couldn't get much going early on. In the third, Ruddy Giron reached on a throwing error by Nuts third baseman Logan Taylor, stole second, moved up to third on a groundout, and then scored on a Edwin Moreno line drive that caromed off pitcher Pablo Lopez for a single.
The Storm only hit two balls out of the infield in the first five frames. But in the sixth, after Michael Gettys reached on an infield single to extend his hitting streak to nine games, Josh Naylor launched a ball to the right-center gap for an RBI double that put the team up to stay.
Naylor was in his first game since he took a pickoff throw from Lauer off his face on April 29, a mishap that broke two facial bones and sent him to the disabled list for just less than two weeks. The big man is not restricted at all on his return, though he appeared as the designated hitter with Lauer on the mound tonight. He'll be wearing a clear face shield in the field for a while and has an extended guard over his cheek on his batting helmet.
Despite the gruesome-sounding injury, Naylor barely missed a beat, finishing the night 3-for-4, though his first hit could easily have been ruled an error.
"It was good to see him on the field," said Rodriguez. "And then the way he swung today, it seemed like he didn't miss anything. Very good at-bats. He had good control of the strike zone."
While the RBI double was impressive, his RBI single in the eighth as part of the club's three-run rally was a good example of how the 19-year-old is developing at the plate. With two strikes on him and runners on first and second, he inside-outed a pitch on the inner third and hit it into center for a clean single.
"He's been doing that pretty much all season," said Rodriguez. "With two strikes, and those situations when he needs to put the ball in play, he's been doing that."
After Naylor's hit, Guerra ripped a single to right as well to plate a second run then Austin Allen followed with a double of his own to cap the scoring. Five Storm hitters finished the night with multiple hits.
Notes: Wilmer Torres made his first California League appearance, relieving Lauer in the sixth. He worked a one-two-three inning, picking up a strikeout along the way. Because the Storm pushed across a run in the bottom of the frame, he also picked up the victory. However, the 20 year old righty, who opened the year in Fort Wayne but has spent most of the last month in extended spring training, was notified after the game that he'll be headed back to Peoria. ... Gettys had two hits on the night, pushing his on-base percentage up to .314 for the first time in exactly a month. He also made it through the contest without striking out for the first time in 20 games. If you missed it, I talked to him pregame. ... The game was sloppy in several aspects Friday night. The Storm ran into two dumb outs on the bases as Giron and Naylor each rounded a base too aggressively and were hung out to dry. The Nuts, meanwhile, turned what could have been three outs into hits for Lake Elsinore. ... JC Cosme left Wednesday night's game in pain after throwing a pitch. He was sent to meet with the team's physicians today and has been placed on the disabled list. While there's no specifics yet, it seems like this could be a fairly significant issue for the 20-year-old righty. We'll work on getting more information as it's available. ... Barring any setbacks, Jake Nix will likely join the Storm very soon. He's been pitching in extended spring training after a groin/hip flexor injury slowed him down in camp.