One of the big surprises in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system this year has been the progress of right handed pitcher Phillip Irwin. The former Ole Miss starter was selected in the 21st round of the 2009 draft, 17 rounds after the Pirates selected his Ole Miss teammate Nathan Baker. Both starters began the 2011 season in high-A Bradenton, but it was Irwin who moved up to Altoona, after an impressive 2.03 ERA in 53.1 innings, along with a 40:12 K/BB ratio.
Since moving up to Altoona, Irwin has had mixed results, with a 4.42 ERA in 75.1 innings. However, the most impressive thing has been his impressive 61:9 K/BB ratio. Tonight was one of Irwin’s best starts of the year. He struck out nine batters, which was his personal best at the AA level, and one shy of his career best, set in high-A earlier in the year. He gave up two runs on six hits in seven innings, with an uncharacteristic three walks. He threw 93 pitches, with 64 going for strikes.
“When he’s got all three working, he’s pretty tough,” Curve manager P.J. Forbes said about Irwin’s performance tonight. “Using both sides of the plate, I thought Tony did a great job of guiding him, putting down the right fingers, moving the ball around, and executing our game plan tonight.”
Irwin was working mostly with a mixture of his sinker and his curveball, trying to throw Richmond batters off early in the count, and trying to get ground balls.
“This Richmond team attacks early in the count. We know that, so a good located fastball or a first pitch breaking ball just to get them off you a little bit,” Forbes said. ”As long as he throws strike one, he’s gonna be ok.”
Irwin got four ground balls in the first inning. The first two went for ground outs, one to shortstop, and the other to second base. The third ground ball went off Irwin’s leg, allowing Francisco Peguero to reach on a single. However, Irwin rebounded with another ground out to end the frame.
He ran in to a little trouble in the third inning. After a leadoff walk and a one out single, Irwin had a man in scoring position with a one run lead and one out. The ground ball came through again, getting a 6-4-3 double play to get out of the frame. Irwin gave up his first of two runs in the fourth inning, on a sacrifice fly to center field. With two outs, Wed Hodges hit a shallow fly ball to Starling Marte. Marte double clutched on the throw, which was just enough to let Peguero to score.
From there, Irwin coasted, striking out seven batters in his final three innings, including three in the seventh inning. However, the strikeouts came after a leadoff home run to Skyler Stromsmoe, with the homer coming on one of two changeups that Irwin threw on the night.
Irwin was working mostly in the 88-90 MPH range with his sinker, ranging to 86-90 in the final two innings. The sinker has been somewhat new for him this year. He threw a four seam fastball last year in West Virginia, but worked on the sinker this year. He mostly used it as a situational pitch when he was in high-A, but that hasn’t been the case since his promotion.
“I definitely leaned on it more once I got to AA,” Irwin said. “Hitters are so much tougher here. I’m trying to use it a lot more early in counts, to try and get a ground ball.”
When he wasn’t getting ground balls with his sinker, it was his curveball that was getting the job done with the strikeouts.
“When they got guys on, I tried to go to that,” Irwin said about the curve. ”Take them off my fastball and make sure they don’t hit anything hard somewhere. Usually my approach is just attacking my sinker and fastball, try to get ground balls early. After that, I used my curveball to put them away.”
Irwin left the game with Altoona down 2-1, despite a strong outing from their starter. That changed in the bottom of the seventh inning. Tony Sanchez led off with a hard hit double to right center field, then scored when Matt Curry laced a liner down the first base line, and legged it out for an RBI triple. Two batters later, the Curve took the lead on a Jeremy Farrell RBI single up the middle, putting Irwin in line for his seventh win of the season at the AA level.
Starling Marte added to the lead with an RBI single in his next at-bat, one of two hits on the day for the center fielder. Brock Holt added extra insurance with an RBI single to right field. Holt was caught leaning a bit off of first base, but a wild throw to first and heads up base running by Marte put another run on the board, giving Altoona a 6-2 lead.
Bryan Morris came on in the eighth inning and had a strong frame. He started off with a 95 MPH fastball, then ranged from 91-94, mostly sitting around 93 MPH, and sprinkling in some high-80s sliders. He needed just 11 pitches to get through the inning, including a swinging strikeout to end the inning. His second inning wasn’t as effective, giving up a leadoff walk and a single, before being removed for Noah Krol. Krol got a line out for out number one, then issued a walk to load the bases and bring the tying run to the plate. However, a double play ball hit to Josh Rodriguez was all Krol needed to get his 22nd save of the year.
“Tonight Noah bailed me out,” Morris said after the game. ”I let the first couple of guys get on base in the ninth inning, and he did a nice job of getting me out of the inning, so I applaud him for that.”
“He’s thrown the ball really well,” manager P.J. Forbes said of Morris’ work out of the bullpen recently. ”He’s been sick, he went 50-some pitches in his last outing. Combine those things, I’ll just call tonight a hiccup in the ninth.”
The Pirates Prospects season ending tour will continue tomorrow night from State College, with Ryan Hafner taking the mound for the Spikes. I will be reporting live from the game, with a recap and more player insight afterwards. If you’ve enjoyed the reports from the last two nights, show your support to the site by purchasing a copy of the 2011 Prospect Guide, which is now on a season ending clearance sale.