Top pitching prospects turn in banner day

On a day when the Royals' bullpen blew a five-run lead against the Tigers, Royals fans can take solace that Tuesday was a banner day for the organization's pitching prospects. Indeed, all four full season affiliates got impressive outings from their starting pitchers, including three who ranked in the top 10 on RC's 2010 Top 60 list. Click inside for the details.

The day's minor league action kicked off with an afternoon tilt between the Burlington Bees and the Kane County Cougars. John Lamb (#8 on this year's Top 60) was on the bump, making his second start of the season for the Bees. Lamb's control was a bit off in his season debut, when he walked four batters in four innings while surrendering one earned run.

On Tuesday, Lamb more closely represented the prospect that prompted us to rank him as the Royals' eighth-best prospect during the offseason. He breezed through the first four innings, surrendering just one infield hit and a walk while the Bees' offense built a 5-0 lead. In the bottom of the fifth, however, Lamb plunked the leadoff batter and walked the next. With two on and nobody out, the 19-year-old southpaw bore down and struck out the next two hitters. Having reached his pitch count (which is generally about 75 pitches at this point in the season), Lamb gave way to Dusty Odenbach. The reliever induced a flyout, ending the threat.

On the day, Lamb finished with an impressive line of 4.2 innings pitched, 1 hit, 0 runs, 2 walks, and 6 strikeouts. His ERA on the young season now stands at 1.04, and he's struck out 11 batters in 8.2 innings pitched.

Unfortunately for Burlington, the bullpen blew their five-run advantage, and the Bees fell to the Cougars in 11 innings, 6-5.

In Northwest Arkansas, top prospect Aaron Crow also made his second start of the season, and he too improved on his debut. On Thursday, Crow pitched 4.2 strong innings against the San Antonio Missions, surrendering just one unearned run on four hits and three walks while striking out two. In Tuesday's game against the Corpus Christi Hooks, the 23-year-old first rounder went deeper into the game and threw a higher percentage of his pitches for strikes.

Crow was excellent through the first three innings, holding the Hooks scoreless while surrendering just one hit and one walk. He ran into some trouble in the fourth when Koby Clemens deposited one of his offerings over the wall for a two-run homer. Crow retired the next two hitters but then surrendered three straight singles, loading the bases. He recovered before any more damage could be done, however, striking out Jack Shuck to end the inning.

Crow worked two more innings and retired the final seven hitters he faced. He ended the day with a line of 6.0 innings pitched, 6 hits, 2 runs (both earned), 1 walk, and 5 strikeouts, and he handed a 3-2 lead to the bullpen. Crow threw 55 of his 81 pitches for strikes, and his season ERA now stands at 1.69.

Unfortunately, in what seemed to be a contagious problem throughout the system on Tuesday, the bullpen couldn't hold the lead. The Naturals lost in 13 innings, 4-3.

In Omaha, O-Royals starter Gaby Hernandez also turned in a beautiful outing. Hernandez was claimed by the Royals from the Boston Red Sox in early March and placed on the club's 40-man roster. The 23-year-old righthander was in the Mariners' system last season, and he struggled a bit while pitching with Triple-A Tacoma, compiling a 10-9 record and 5.23 ERA in 26 starts. Through six minor league seasons, Hernandez owns a career ERA of 4.27.

On Tuesday, however, he was brilliant against the Nashville Sounds. Hernandez tossed six no-hit innings for the O-Royals while striking out four batters and walking three. A pair of home runs by Wilson Betemit and Kila Ka'aihue helped stake him to a four-run lead, which he handed off to the bullpen in the seventh inning.

A combination of Josh Rupe, Matt Herges, and Blake Wood preserved the shutout, although Herges lost the no-hitter in the top of the eighth when he surrendered a leadoff single to Nashville shortstop Luis Cruz. Final score – Omaha 4, Nashville 0.

Of course, we saved the day's best pitching performance for last. Wilmington's Mike Montgomery (#3 on this year's Top 60) took the mound against the Kinston Indians for his second start of the season. His debut last Thursday was very good, as he limited the Myrtle Beach Pelicans to just one unearned run on two hits in five innings.

On Tuesday, however, Montgomery was utterly dominant. He began the game by striking out the side in the first inning on 13 pitches. He added another strikeout in the second before fanning two more in the third. In the fifth inning, he again struck out the side. In fact, Montgomery was perfect through six innings with 11 strikeouts, and the Blue Rocks led, 3-0.

The 20-year-old southpaw finally lost his perfect game in the seventh, when he surrendered a leadoff infield single to Kinston's Jordan Henry. He retired the next two hitters (one on another K) before giving up a double to Nate Recknagel, which scored Henry. Montgomery promptly answered by recording another strikeout – his 13th of the game – to end the inning and his outing. Eric Basurto pitched the final two frames for the Blue Rocks, closing out a 3-1 win with four more strikeouts.

On the season, Montgomery's numbers are already absurd. He's now 1-0 with a 0.75 ERA. In 12 innings pitched, he's struck out 19 batters while surrendering just four hits and one walk. The Carolina League is hitting just .098 against him.

Montgomery made nine starts for the Blue Rocks last year, and he was dominant enough that many thought he might begin this season in Double-A. With more outings like Tuesday's, it probably won't be long before he gets there.

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