Instant Analysis: Hickory/Lake County (7/9)

HICKORY, N.C. - The Hickory Crawdads pitching staff, led by Wilmer Font, tossed a three-hitter on Thursday night and allowed just one hit out of the infield in a 6-0 victory. Lone Star Dugout was on-hand for the game, and we provide analysis from the contest.

The story of the Hickory Crawdads' 2009 season has been all about pitching, and that certainly continued on Thursday evening, as Wilmer Font, Tyler Tufts, and Matt Nevarez combined on a three-hit shutout of the Lake County Captains.

Font, who got the start, tossed five scoreless innings, surrendering just one hit while walking one and striking out four. He threw 80 pitches. The only hit he allowed was a bunt single off the bat of leadoff hitter Delvi Cid.

The 19-year-old sat between 92-94 mph with his fastball, reaching as low as 90 and peaking at 95 a handful of times. While Font's velocity was obviously plus, he was down a tick on Thursday. Font has generally reached 96 and 97 mph at times in his outings this season.

Regardless, Font's fastball command appeared to be much improved. It still grades as slightly below-average on the overall scale, but compared to where he was just one year ago, he has improved by leaps and bounds.

With the exception of one or two at-bats, Font was around the strike zone with his fastball, often working the corners and climbing the ladder in the zone at the appropriate times. The fastballs that he threw over the middle of the plate were either taken or blown by the Lake County hitters. The Captains only squared up one or two balls against the right-hander all night.

But, without question, Font's greatest improvement has been with his offspeed stuff. When Font pitched in the rookie-level Arizona League two summers ago, Font's curveball and changeup were well-below average—almost nonexistant.

On Thursday night, the Venezuelan was able to throw both for strikes with great consistency. Judging by his overall results this season, Font hasn't always been that consistent, but the potential is there—potential that he hasn't shown in the past.

Font's first 15 pitches of the game were all fastballs. After that, he threw two consecutive changeups and eventually finished off cleanup man Nate Recknagel by getting him to roll over a curveball to shortstop.

Out of his 80 pitches, Font threw six changeups and nine curveballs. He threw the 83-84 mph change for a strike four times and his 72-75 mph curve seven times.

Most importantly, Font is showing improved arm action on his changeup and he was able to keep hitters out in front of the pitch when he threw it. Font saved his curveball for later in the game, using it five times to the final four hitters he faced. Although the pitch is still inconsistent, it shows definite plus potential.

His curveball has a much bigger, sharper break in the past. At times, the pitch was starting behind right-handed hitters, near their heads, and breaking over the plate and into the strike zone.

The bottom line is that Font still has a long way to go in his development. He must get more consistent with his command and his offspeed stuff. But the potential for above-average command and two solid secondary pitches is evident, and that hasn't been the case in the past.

Font is no longer just an incredibly talented arm. He has arrived as one of the Rangers' legitimate elite prospects.

Reliever Tyler Tufts followed Font with three dominant innings, allowing zero runs on one hit and striking out five. The only hit Tufts surrendered was an infield knock that was lined off his foot and bounced around the infield.

A 32nd round draft pick out of the University of Indiana in 2008, Tufts is developing into a legitimate relief prospect. A mechanical change made by pitching coach Brad Holman—which will be explained in further detail in an upcoming interview with Tufts—has given the pitcher increase velocity.

Tufts sat in the 88-90 mph range after signing with the Rangers last season, but he now sits in the low-90s. The righty threw his sinking fastball at 90-91 mph on Thursday, but he has reached 93 and 94 mph at times this year.

On Thursday, Tufts flashed a solid 77-78 mph changeup that helped him rack up a couple of strikeouts and an inning-ending double play. He also mixed in a slider.

For the season, Tufts' hard sinker has gotten him an impressive 2.33:1 groundout-to-flyout ratio, and he has issued just nine walks in 48.2 innings.

The 22-year-old spent some time filling a spot in Bakersfield last season, and he could be on the verge of a promotion back there in the very near future.

Hickory closer Matt Nevarez wasn't at his best in the victory, but he struck out two batters in a scoreless ninth inning to preserve the win.

Nevarez generally hits the mid-90s at least a couple of times in his outings, but his fastball was 92-93 mph on Thursday. His command was also a bit off, as he threw 13 of 21 pitches within the strike zone. Still, the potential with Nevarez is evident.

The California native flashed three excellent changeups in the outing, getting a strikeout, a called strike, and a popup to third base. The change of pace was particularly promising because, before Thursday, Nevarez hadn't used the pitch in games this season.

Young catcher Leonel De Los Santos—nicknamed ‘Macumba' for his plus-plus arm strength—has struggled defensively the season.

The raw talent was on display on Thursday, however. De Los Santos gunned down the speedy Cid with a perfect throw to second base to end the third inning. He also called an excellent game, providing his helping hand in the three-hit shutout.

A lot has been made of Frisco catcher Manny Pina's plus arm over the last few years. And while Pina certainly has a plus arm, De Los Santos' cannon is undoubtedly a step above.

Designated hitter Doug Hogan started the scoring by belting a solo home run to left field in the bottom of the fifth inning. Hogan is batting just .228 this season, but he has plenty of strength and raw power. Hogan's .551 slugging percentage would rank fifth in the South Atlantic League if he had enough at-bats to quality.

Cristian Santana's struggles over the past two seasons have been well-documented. The slugger may have the most raw power in the Rangers' system, but he is more than prone to the strikeout. Santana has punched out 59 times in 151 at-bats with Hickory this year. However, he also has four home runs in nine July games.

Santana flashed the power on Thursday, hitting an opposite-field shot. The native of the Dominican Republic reached out and poked a pitch on the outer-half over the right field wall.

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