• The Bakersfield Blaze won their fourth consecutive game with an exciting 3-2 victory over the San Jose Giants on Tuesday evening.
Although he didn't factor in the decision, Zach Phillips stole the show on the mound, tossing six innings of two-hit ball. The lefty surrendered one run while walking three and striking out eight.
"I had all of my pitches working early in the game," said Phillips after the outing. "I left the ball up a little bit, but after that, I found a little rhythm – I called my catcher over and talked to him. The catcher called a good game and I appreciate that."
Sitting between 86-88 mph with his two-seam fastball for much of the game, the left-hander did an excellent job of throwing quality strikes, as he lived on the inside and outside corners of the plate. Phillips says that has been his focus in recent bullpen sessions.
"We have been working on keeping the ball down in the zone and working in and out with my two-seam," he said.
One thing that stood out on Tuesday was the amount of changeups thrown by Phillips, especially early in the count. Approximately 22 of his 96 pitches were changeups. Phillips also threw first-pitch changeups to five of the 12 hitters he faced in the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings.
Phillips' changeup was mostly clocked in the 77-79 mph range. Even though he left the pitch up at times, it has improved since last season and looks like it should develop into an above-average offering.
The 21-year-old didn't even throw a changeup before he joined the Rangers organization in 2005, but he has clearly developed a great deal of confidence in the pitch.
"Last year I threw the changeup quite a bit, but I'm starting to get a better feel for my changeup this year," Phillips said. "It feels good. It feels like it is improving. I throw it every day – practice with it."
The southpaw's bread-and-butter pitch is still his big 11-to-5 curveball, which is one of the top breaking pitches in the organization. Phillips fired the curveball, which ranged between 69-75 mph, an estimated 14 times on Tuesday. Phillips says he intentionally adds and subtracts velocity from his breaking ball depending on the situation.
"Mainly for first pitch strikes, I take a little off," explained the Sacramento native. "Then I go from there."
Phillips was able to have success with his plus curveball by breaking it over the plate on lefties, dropping it over the outside corner to right-handers, and occasionally burying it in the dirt. He recorded three strikeouts – two looking, one swinging – on his bender.
Despite his strong effort on Tuesday, Phillips' ERA for the season is still a lofty 6.06. Although he's had his share of strong starts this season, Phillips has been inconsistent. He hopes his most recent start will help turn his fortunes.
"I need to be more consistent – definitely keep the ball down," he said. "It's a hitter's league. You've got to keep the ball down to stay in the game and help your team win."
• John Bannister followed Phillips and ran into immediate trouble. The first pitch of his outing was an 88 mph fastball that Mike Mooney hit well over the left field fence.
Bannister would cruise from there, showing excellent stuff along the way. The 24-year-old righty, who missed all of 2007 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, retired six of the next seven hitters he would face. His fastball sat between 92-93 mph, touching 94 once.
The right-hander's most impressive pitch on Tuesday was his 80-82 mph slider [with some slurvy action, it could also be called a curveball]. Eight of Bannister's nine sliders dropped into the strike zone. His weakest slider of the night came on the last pitch of the outing – a Brett Pill popup to right field.
After beginning the season as a starting pitcher in Bakersfield, Bannister earned a promotion to Double-A Frisco, where he walked 17 and gave up nine earned runs in 12.2 innings over three starts.
The hurler then returned to Bakersfield, where he has worked out of the bullpen. In eight relief appearances with the Blaze, Bannister has surrendered five earned runs on 13 hits in 13.2 innings, walking three and punching out 12. Bannister says although there was a slight adjustment period, he is betting to feel comfortable out of the ‘pen.
"I like it a lot," said Bannister of the bullpen. "It's a good transition for me. I like being down there. It's a little hard to get used to at first, being a starter. I'd get my long toss and preparation before my start date, knowing every day when I'm going to throw.
"But I feel like I've made a pretty good transition. It's much easier to get loose now. I kind of know my limits."
The rush of entering a game in the late-innings also helps Bannister get ready quicker.
"I think adrenaline takes a lot of it in there," he said. "I stretch a little bit throughout the innings, just to stay loose. I throw to the left or right fielder, depending on whether we're at home or on the road. Stuff like that. When I get going, it feels pretty easy."
When working as a starter, Bannister typically mixes in a changeup. He says he also throws it out of the bullpen, although he didn't flash the pitch on Tuesday.
"I actually throw [changeups] out of the bullpen," Bannister said. "I'm pretty confident in it. It has been a work-in-progress and I feel a lot more confident in it. It's just something I have got to believe in and trust and throw whenever it's called."
• The star of the game offensively was left fielder Chad Tracy, who came up with a pair of big hits to lead the Blaze to victory.
Tracy's first big hit came in the top of the first inning, when he faced Giants prospect and 2008 MLB Futures Game participant Kevin Pucetas. The Pepperdine product launched a two-run homer over the 365 sign in left-center field to give Bakersfield an early lead.
"It was a hanging curveball," said Tracy of his home run. "I know he's got a good breaking ball. He left one up and it just kind of spun. It stayed in the middle of the plate, so I was able to get a bat on it. He threw a couple of fastballs. He's tremendous at keeping his fastball down and it's got good angle – it hits the knees. I was fortunate enough to get one up in the zone there."
Following a couple of uneventful at-bats, Tracy came through again in the top of the eighth inning. With the game tied at two, he laced an RBI triple to the right-centerfield gap, giving the Blaze a one-run lead.
"He threw a first-pitch fastball and he kind of jammed me – I fouled it off," explained Tracy. "Then he threw a good slider and I swung through it, so I was 0-2. Really I was just in battle play with one out. I was just trying to put the ball in play somewhere.
"He came with a slider again, but he left it up in the middle a little bit – a little bit of a mistake – and I was able to put another good swing on it and use the opposite side of the field."
• Tuesday's defensive play of the game was provided by shortstop Marcus Lemon.
With a man on first and nobody out in the bottom of the eighth inning, Giants second baseman Brad Boyer laid down a sacrifice bunt. Although Chris Gradoville was able to nail Boyer at first base, nobody went to cover third base, allowing the speedy Darren Ford to take third on a heads-up play.
The next batter, third baseman Matt Downs, hit a ground ball to shortstop with the infield playing in. Lemon came up with the ball and fired a strike to Gradoville to nail Ford, successfully putting an end to the San Jose rally.
Lemon also had a solid day at the plate, as he had a single to right field to go with a sacrifice bunt.
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