It was clear from his first start at Low-A Delmarva this season that left-hander Zac Lowther would need to move up for a challenge. Now that he has, his first start at High-A Frederick proved why.
In Lowther's Carolina League debut Wednesday, the 22-year-old pitched four innings and allowed a run on two hits and three walks with a pair of strikeouts in the Keys' 5-3 win at the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Lowther showed many of the traits that have made him one of the Orioles' most impressive minor league pitchers this season and highlighted how his promotion might provide challenges that make him even better.
"It's his first outing," Keys pitching coach Blaine Beatty said. "I felt like he was kind of feeling for his stuff a little bit, thinking that he had to do a little more at this level and pitch around the zone a little bit. But he showed some deception a little bit. There were some guys where he located his fastball pretty good that they swung through it.
"I think he's going to be fine here. Moving forward, he's going to have to get his curveball over a little bit more and throw his secondaries a little bit more. I like that he likes to use his fastball and move it around, but I think as we move forward, it's something he's going to have to get over the plate a little more and use some of his secondary stuff."
Lowther primarily used that sneaky fastball to begin the season for the Shorebirds in dazzling fashion, striking out 13 in six no-hit, scoreless innings on April 9. He missed a few starts with a tight oblique, but was promoted this week having allowed four runs in 31 innings with 51 strikeouts and a 0.677 WHIP. Only four qualified starters in all of the minors had allowed fewer runs.
Knowing all that, Beatty told Lowther before Wednesday’s game, which came just two days after he arrived with the Keys, to make sure he trusted what worked at Delmarva and kept doing it.
"Just kind of went out there and tried to stick with how I pitch," Lowther said. "I got away from it a little bit."
Lowther began the outing riding his 89-92 mph fastball to a scoreless first inning, using his changeup for a groundout and a strikeout looking but walking Wilmington's top prospect, 19-year-old Khalil Lee, after getting ahead 1-2.
Those deep counts continued for Lowther all day, with plenty of weak contact but also plenty of pitches used to get there.
"I wasn't filling up the zone as much, kind of was trying to nitpick on the edges too much and kind of getting out of rhythm on the mound," Lowther said. "I tried to get back into that, but especially with two outs, was putting too much pressure on myself."
That didn't necessarily mean he missed his spots by much with the fastball, as he spotted it to both sides of the plate consistently all day. But pitching on the edges meant he had little margin for error, and he was without his trusted curveball, which he threw only a handful of times and didn't get a single strike on. Lowther said he "just didn't have it today," though at its best the pitch profiles as his top secondary pitch at the highest level.
When it came time for him to put hitters away, the changeup was an asset, responsible for five of his 12 outs. Considering it's a pitch he only recently harnessed with the help of fellow 2017 draftee Michael Baumann last month, that was encouraging.
"I think my changeup worked today the way I wanted it to," Lowther said. "Being able to have that pitch is big for me, especially righties. Once I get my curveball going, it's going to be something that's going to help every other pitch. That's something that I'm still working on, and being able to trust that is coming along very nicely."
Not having both was a challenge, though. The one run he allowed came in his fourth and final inning. He walked Lee again to open the inning. Lee went to second on a heads-up play when a pop-up to the mound was caught in a pile of Keys and no one was there to cover second. He advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on a single.
Lowther needed 85 pitches to complete the four innings, but everything that was true about him in a Shorebirds uniform applied when he upgraded it to Frederick's version of orange. His fastball, from a low, compact delivery, still hides the ball well and forces late swings when it's located in the zone. The mettle that stood out to the Delmarva coaching staff in terms of limiting damage was mostly present. The easy, repeatable delivery never left him.
But the Orioles likely only started Lowther — an advanced college pitcher selected in the second round of last year's draft who also dominated at Short-A Aberdeen — at Delmarva because of a crowded rotation at Frederick. Similarly advanced pitchers such as Cody Sedlock and Keegan Akin last year and David Hess in 2015 skipped the South Atlantic League entirely.
Lowther’s injury might have delayed his arrival a bit. Now that he's there, Lowther's looking forward to being the best version of himself to keep him on that same fast trajectory his hot start put him on.
"When you move up, you have that third pitch ready to go and being able to keep guys off-balance and hit spots with three pitches is going to be the way to move up," he said.
"It protects his fastball is what it does," Beatty said of his secondary pitches. "It keeps them off of it and keeps them off-balance so they're not able to sit on it. I think tonight was just a little more feeling like he had to do more than what he did down there.
“I'm not worried about him. I know he's going to go after guys and compete. He's going to be fine there."