Three years ago this month, Orioles rookie left-hander Zac Lowther was at Camden Yards being honored as the organization’s Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year for his first full professional season, seemingly putting him on the fast-track to the majors.
It’s been a shaky start since he finally arrived earlier this summer, but a career-best game Thursday night in a 3-0 win over the Texas Rangers to begin a four-game series before 6,328 at Camden Yards reinforced to Lowther and the Orioles (49-104) that better days are ahead for the 25-year-old.
Lowther struck out a career-high seven in five innings of three-hit, shutout ball, and did so by settling in quickly after being ambushed by a barrage of hits in his most recent starts.
“He’s had a couple rough starts against teams in our division, their lineups are primarily right-handed, a lot of power and veteran-type hitters and tonight, you just have way more confidence in how he threw the ball,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “You could see it from the first inning, so you hope he takes this into the offseason and understands he can pitch here. Now, it’s about command and changing speeds. As a left-hander that’s not going to overpower you, you’ve got to be able to pitch to both sides of the plate. You’re going to face a majority right-handed hitters.
“You’ve got to have weapons to get guys out with. Really, for me, it’s fastball command and confidence in his off-speed, which he did tonight.”
Those two facets are what Lowther credited for his strikeouts Thursday, which piled up early. Five of the first eight batters he faced struck out, and though he dealt with traffic on the bases in all but the third inning and reached 94 pitches quickly, he did well to keep Texas down.
“I think the ability to get in on these guys, got my fastball established inside and then was able to get some off-speed pitches over for strikes, and then being able to put them away was a big focus this week,” Lowther said. “My ability to do that got me the strikeouts, and my fastball command put me in the positions to get the strikeouts. I was very happy with that.”
By game score (69), Lowther’s start Thursday was the second-best of the 68 by a rookie pitcher for the Orioles this season, behind only Keegan Akin’s start Aug. 26 against the Los Angeles Angels.
“I thought that Zac threw with a lot more confidence tonight,” Hyde said. “Everything was improved — presence on the mound, I thought his stuff was sharper, had more life to his fastball. He showed more confidence with his off-speed stuff and did a nice job of mixing, threw a ton of strikes and got us five big shutout innings.”
Lowther, who lowered his ERA to 7.66, said a start like this is ideal to carry into the offseason as September winds down and he starts to look toward making improvements.
“I definitely think this being one of the last outings of the year for me, going forward it’s a good learning moment for me going into the offseason to put toward my work, and then just the confidence boost from having a good outing this late in the season after some struggles,” he said.
Fellow rookie Glenn Otto held the Orioles scoreless until the fourth, when Richie Martin laid down a sacrifice bunt with Ryan McKenna at third after a double by McKenna and a single by Jahmai Jones.
Ryan Mountcastle hit his 31st home run of the season in the fifth to send Lowther off with a two-run lead, and Austin Hays’ 22nd homer of the season came in the eighth to give a 4-0 lead to an impressive relief trio of Mike Baumann, Cole Sulser and Tyler Wells, who earned his fourth save of the season.
In a difficult season for pitchers all over baseball, Sulser is completing a quietly impressive — and healthy — season. With 1 2/3 innings of no-hit, no-run ball with two strikeouts Thursday, Sulser has a 2.82 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP and 73 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings.
Hyde called Thursday’s outing the “biggest outs of the game,” a continuation of being able to trust Sulser in big spots.
“Kind of trying to just be more consistent in the strike zone,” Sulser said. “I think that’s been the biggest thing, trying to cut back on the walks, trying to cut down on being behind in the count. I think that’s allowed me to have a more consistent season.”
He inherited two runners from Baumann in the seventh and kept the inning scoreless, ensuring the first outing without allowing a run for the rookie Baumann since his major league debut Sept. 7. After the game, the Orioles optioned Baumann to Triple-A Norfolk.
Around the horn
- Hyde said right-hander Chris Ellis, who is experiencing arm fatigue, will start Saturday as long as he recovers well from his bullpen session Thursday afternoon.
- Left-hander Bruce Zimmermann allowed two runs on four hits with six strikeouts in four innings on a rehab start for Triple-A Norfolk on Thursday. Hyde said they’d see how he felt coming out of the outing before determining whether he should pitch in the majors again this season.
- Infielder Ramón Urías, who went on the injured list Wednesday with a right adductor strain, won’t return this season, Hyde said. Urías can compete for a job next spring thanks to what he showed this year, Hyde said.
Friday, 7:05 p.m.
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