Nine starts into his career with the Seattle Mariners organization, Justus Sheffield has started to see progress.
After laboring through his early outings with Triple-A Tacoma and struggling with command, Sheffield tossed his second quality start Wednesday afternoon at Cheney Stadium. He worked through a season-high seven innings, allowed one earned run — a solo homer by Nationals top prospect Carter Kieboom — on seven hits, while walking one and striking out two.
“I think those early-season jitters combined with some mechanical things just kind of had me in a bad slump,” Sheffield said. “But, where I am now from where I was is pretty encouraging to see.”
Sheffield (2-2, 3.89 ERA) forced Fresno’s batters into 12 groundouts, worked 1-2-3 innings in both the third and fourth, and faced more than four batters in an inning just once, averaging an efficient 13-14 pitches per frame.
He threw 94 pitches, including 57 strikes, and his only meaningful mistake came on a changeup left over the plate to Kieboom.
“I’m just feeling better overall,” Sheffield said. “My fastball, I feel like it has some good life to it. My off-speed, I feel like it’s good. My slider was a little off today … but I was able to make the adjustment and get them down.”
Sheffield said most of the groundouts, which helped him out of minor jams in both the first and seventh innings, came on his changeup.
“When I can get my fastball and changeup working, it makes it a whole lot easier to get the weak contact and get the ground balls,” Sheffield said. “Then you throw the slider in there for an out pitch or things like that, it makes it a little bit easier when you can get that combination going.”
Even in the seventh, when Fresno had a runner at third with one out, and his pitch count was rising, Sheffield was able to work out of trouble without allowing a run.
“It’s huge,” he said. “I knew that was my last inning and I didn’t want to get pulled from the game. I wanted to finish the seventh.”
He did, and earned his second win of the season, along with posting his first quality start since April 17.
“I think every time you’re out there and show results, it builds confidence,” Rainiers pitching coach Lance Painter said. “I don’t think he’s ever really lacked confidence, but I think where he is right now, he’s in a positive place.”
Painter said Sheffield has appeared calmer on the mound as the season has continued, and consistency in his command has followed.
“The body control has really started to take shape in the last two to three outings,” Painter said. “He’s able to calm a game down inside, and now he’s able to repeat pitches more consistently. When he gets one that takes off on him, he’s able to get the next pitch in the zone. That’s something we’ve been working on, and it’s starting to show a lot of positives.”
Rainiers rookie starter Erik Swanson (0-0, 3.38), who was optioned to Tacoma by the Mariners last week after recording a 1-5 record and 7.98 ERA in six starts, made his second Triple-A start of the season on Tuesday.
He pitched three scheduled innings, allowing three earned runs — on a three-run homer to Fresno’s Raudy Read — on two hits, while walking and striking out two apiece.
“We’ve done that with a few guys over the past few years,” Rainiers manager Daren Brown said of the abbreviated start. “Sometimes it’s just a shorter outing, whether it’s one, two (innings). His is going to be three. Three innings today, and then just go from there.”
Swanson will likely throw a regular start in his next appearance, Brown said, but the shorter start was designed to give Swanson a less taxing outing.
“It’s not anything out of the ordinary with guys,” Brown said. “They’re doing it in the big leagues with (Yusei) Kikuchi right now with the one inning. Every once in a while, just give him a little bit of a breather.”
Swanson threw quick 1-2-3 innings in the first and third, with a troublesome seven-batter inning between in the second.
It was his first start since the Rainiers’ season-opener in Sacramento on April 4, when he pitched five scoreless frames, allowing six hits and striking out eight.
Painter said the Rainiers are working on building Swanson’s consistency.
“Just getting his secondary stuff back in the zone, and being consistent with stuff,” Painter said. “It’s something that he started to get away from, being able to control his off-speed pitches.”
Mairners right-handed relievers Sam Tuivailala and Gerson Bautista are continuing their minor league rehab assignments with Tacoma.
Tuivailala has thrown two innings in relief across two games, including a hitless inning at Cheney Stadium on Tuesday, when he struck out one batter. He threw 19 pitches.
Bautista has thrown once, allowing one hit in a scoreless inning Tuesday. His fastball touched 100 mph, and remained in the upper 90s throughout the inning. He threw 23 pitches.
“They’re basically starting over in spring training again, so it’s get arm strength and get repetition,” Painter said.