Simply put, Richard Bleier was absolutely masterful on Thursday evening.
The left-hander tossed a complete game, three-hit shutout against the San Antonio Missions, firing just 88 pitches. In other words, Bleier averaged 9.8 pitches per inning and 2.9 pitches per plate appearnace. He pounded the strike zone, walking zero and fanning a season-high four.
After the contest, Bleier was understandably excited about his performance, the first nine-inning complete game by a pitcher in the Rangers' system this season.
"I'm very pleased with my outing," the pitcher said. "I've obviously been up and down this year, and it's good to get a really good start underneath my belt."
Thursday's outing was just Bleier's sixth start in Double-A ball, and after pitching well in two of his first three outings, he had been struggling a bit.
In fact, while facing the same San Antonio lineup just over one week ago, Bleier was battered for eight runs in a career-low 1.2 innings of work.
"I gave up eight runs against these guys the last time I pitched against them a week ago or so," he said. "It's good to get revenge and really get them there."
A crafty lefty in every sense of the word, Bleier has a far-from-overpowering fastball, but he controlled the Missions with it on Thursday.
Bleier often adds and subtracts speed from his fastball to keep hitters off-balance, so it's difficult to say that his fastball velocity ‘sits' in one general range. The prospect worked anywhere between 83-88 mph in the game, getting his usual excellent sink and run. He held the velocity throughout all nine innings, hitting every spot on the radar gun between 84 and 88 mph in the ninth.
Even in starts where Bleier struggles, he never throws many pitches because he pounds the strike zone with his sinking fastball, getting plenty of early-count swings. That was the case on Thursday, as 15 of the 30 hitters he faced were out of the batter's box within the first two pitches.
Bleier displayed pinpoint command of his fastball in the game, working it down in the strike zone and attacking both corners––particularly the outer half. None of San Antonio's three singles were hit particularly hard, and only one came on a ball that was left over the middle of the plate.
While a couple bouncing ground balls found holes in the infield, the vast majority of them were stopped by Frisco's infield on Thursday. Bleier feels that's one of the reasons he was able to have so much more success in his most recent outing against the Padres affiliate.
"Last time, I had some tough breaks," the 22-year-old said. "There were ground balls that found holes for base hits. Tonight they were hit at people. That's just the difference with me. They're going to hit ground balls. If they are at people, I'll pitch well. If they're in the hole, then it's going to be base hits."
Bleier also had one other effective weapon––his changeup.
"I used my changeup a lot more this time than last time," he said.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound hurler didn't just use his changeup––he used it effectively to both left- and right-handed hitters.
The offspeed pitch arguably became Bleier's second-best pitch last season, and it was dominant on Thursday. Bleier threw 10 changeups in the game, all ranging between 77-79 mph. Nine went for strikes, including four swinging strikes, three called strikes, and two groundouts.
"[The changeup] has been a huge pitch for me in pro ball in general," he said. "I hardly threw it in college. But it has been my most successful pitch, other than my fastball, of course.
"A lot of times last year, I would just be fastball-changeup and throw like two sliders. I would just live off my changeup. This year early on so far, I've kind of been struggling with it. I found it tonight, and it's good to be able to use it as an effective pitch."
The pitch was effective, to say the least. It appears that Bleier's change could stand to be more consistent from start-to-start, but it profiles as a future plus offering, with excellent sink that dives under bats and some cut that runs in on right-handed hitters.
Traditionally, left-handed pitchers throw their changeups to help combat right-handed hitters. Bleier did just that early in the game, but as the contest wore on, he began mixing in a number of them to fellow southpaws.
"Once in awhile I use my changeup to lefties, but not like I did tonight," Bleier said. "Before the game, Jeff Andrews said, ‘There's a lot of lefties in the lineup, so you're going to have to use your changeup to lefties to be successful.'
"K-Rich called the first one, and I threw it for a strike. Then I realized it was going to work. I had some swings and misses and some bad contact on it. It was definitely a good pitch tonight to lefties and righties."
Overall, the Florida Gulf Coast University product is still developing his secondary stuff.
His breaking ball has been a work in progress––it's sort of a slider-curveball hybrid that ranged between 71 and 76 mph on Thursday. He used the pitch effectively to lefties, getting a couple strikeouts looking on curves that dropped into the zone. He can also catch some hitters out in front on the pitch with deception, but overall, he must sharpen the offering.
And if he wasn't already giving hitters enough different looks at all his pitches, Bleier says he has recently added a cutter to his arsenal, which he is easing in to game situations.
"I just started working on a cutter," he said. "I only threw it once or twice tonight, but that is a pitch that has been coming along too. I have been working on it in bullpens––it's like low-80s. It's just like a little slider."
Early on in his Double-A career, Bleier hasn't exactly been the model of consistency. While he has pitched well a couple times, he hasn't yet strung together consecutive strong outings. Bleier hopes Thursday's performance can serve as a springboard to a hot streak.
"It's just a good thing to have a lot of confidence going into my next start," he said. "I got roughed around a few starts, and it's good to put something together here and hopefully string out a few good ones in a row."
Prospect Video: Bleier warms up in the bullpen
By the Numbers: --88 pitches [62 strikes]
--9.8 pitches per inning
--2.9 pitches per plate appearance
--30 batters – 8 balls hit to the outfield
--30 batters – 15 one- or two-pitch plate appearances
--30 batters – 21 first-pitch strikes
--30 batters – 2 three-ball counts
--17 left-handed at-bats – 0 hits, 2 strikeouts
--13 right-handed at-bats – 3 singles, 2 strikeouts
Bleier cruises to shutout
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