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Red Sox minor league roundup: Unhittable Henry Owens can get better; Rubby De La Rosa dominating; Salem’s offensive explosion; Mookie Betts ‘plummets’ below .400

05.09.14 at 12:28 pm ET
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The idea that Henry Owens can be unhittable has been a matter of routine over the course of the last two seasons, to the point where his latest effort represented more a part of a pattern than an aberration. The 21-year-old navigated through 7 2/3 no-hit innings on Thursday before finally yielding a double.

So, one hit in almost eight innings? Ho-hum. The length of his outing — which matched a career-long effort — was in many respects more noteworthy than the fact that he held his opponents without a knock for the duration that he did. After all, since last July, Owens has held his opponents hitless in four starts — two in High-A, two in Double-A. Of his 33 starts since the beginning of 2013, he’s limited the other team to two or fewer hits in one-third (11) of those outings.

Owens has reached the point where even efforts in which he’s all but unhittable represent the basis for critique.

“Good fastball command. Good change-up command,” Portland manager Billy McMillon told the Portland Press-Herald, “but he knows he can do better. His pitch count went up because of the walks.”

Indeed, though Owens was relatively efficient in requiring just 96 pitches to complete almost eight innings (in which he leaned heavily on a fastball that registered from 89-94 mph but sat mostly around 90 mph, executing the pitch down and in to right-handers), he threw strikes with just 56 of his offerings (56 percent) while walking five (three in the first seven innings, two more when likely fatiguing in a three-run eighth in which he’d given up his first of three runs before a two-run double by Andy Burns) and striking out six. The five walks represented a season high, and the left-hander has now walked 3.8 per nine innings while throwing strikes with 62 percent of his offerings.

So, in that context, a dominant outing such as Thursday’s underscores both Owens’ tremendous potential along with the fact that his development is not complete. It will be particularly intriguing to see how he fares against Triple-A hitters who do a better job of forcing pitchers to work inside the strike zone.

Still, the basis for excitement in the Red Sox organization is obvious. Since the start of 2013, he’s held opponents to a .185 average, .292 OBP and .290 slugging mark with 210 strikeouts in 177 1/3 innings (10.5 per nine innings). And whereas he does sometimes struggle with his walk rate (4.4 per nine innings since the start of 2013), that shouldn’t be confused with an inability to command, as Owens shows advanced execution of a gameplan in working to sides of the plate.

In short, Owens’ credentials as the Red Sox‘ top pitching prospect are unquestioned. His control will determine both his ceiling and his timetable for reaching the big leagues, but at a time when he would be a college junior (draft eligible this year) had he not signed after being drafted out of high school in 2011 by the Red Sox, he’s simply been better than the competition that he’s faced as a professional.

TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 5-3 WIN VS. TOLEDO (TIGERS)

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Rubby De La Rosa added to what has been an outstanding start to the year, allowing one earned run (three runs overall) in a season-long 6 2/3 innings while punching out six. He did walk four and threw just 59 of 102 pitches for strikes, and he’s now walked 12 in his last three starts spanning 16 2/3 innings while throwing strikes with fewer than 60 percent of his offerings in each of them (a contrast to his eye-opening start to the year, in which he was more consistently pounding the zone).

Despite the control issues, however, there’s been plenty to impress from De La Rosa’s season. He has a 2.29 ERA with 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings (against 3.6 walks per nine as a result of his recent issues finding the strike zone), he’s gotten a ton of groundballs, he’s yielded just eight extra-base hits (all doubles — and no home runs) with opponents in possession of a miniscule .174/.265/.235 line against him.

— Center fielder Corey Brown continued his recent hot streak, launching a three-run homer. In his last 10 games, he’s gone deep three times with a .273/.359/.606 line, slowly working his way back from a .114/.149/.159 start through 13 games.

— Third baseman Garin Cecchini went 0-for-2 but with a pair of walks, and he stole a base (his fourth of the year without being caught). The 23-year-old is hitting .301/.397/.388 in 31 games this year.

DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 8-2 WIN VS. NEW HAMPSHIRE (BLUE JAYS)

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— Feats of Mookie: Redefining slumping. Mookie Betts went 1-for-5 to extend his streak of consecutive games reaching base to 30 this year — and 60 regular-season contests dating to the end of 2013 in High-A Salem. With that performance, for the first time in 2014, the 21-year-old’s average has fallen below .400. However, that .394 average still leads all of minor league baseball.

— First baseman Travis Shaw went 1-for-4 with a three-run double (off Jays top pitching prospect Aaron Sanchez) and a walk. He ranks third in the Eastern League with 25 RBI, thanks in part to the constant presence of Betts on the bases as well as an approach that has yielded a .324/.444/.400 line with runners in scoring position. He’s enjoying an exceptional May to date, hitting .414/.485/.724 while driving in eight runs in eight games and striking out just twice, though the Red Sox are intrigued to see whether the 24-year-old — who has been prone to streakiness against Double-A pitching since moving up to that level at the end of 2012 — can show that he’s capable of sustaining elite production against Eastern League pitching.

Henry Ramos went 2-for-4 for his third straight multi-hit game and his fifth in six games. The 22-year-old switch-hitter is now hitting .333/.366/.462.

HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 18-2 WIN VS. CAROLINA (INDIANS)

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Carson Blair has been struggling mightily at the plate, but broke out in a big way on Thursday. Serving as the DH, Blair added six of Salem’€™s 18 runs on the evening, blasting a grand slam in the first inning and a two-run double an inning later. The six RBIs represent a new career-high for the 24-year-old. Blair also added a pair of walks on the evening, going 2-for-3 and scoring three times.

Blair is hitting just .169 on the year, but has drawn 18 walks in just 92 plate appearances (walking in almost 20 percent of plate appearances) and has slammed a club-leading four home runs. Unsurprisingly, Blair’€™s home run came off a left-hander, Mudcats starter Shawn Morimando; he’€™s crushing lefties to the tune of a .316/.500/.789 line while hitting just .115 with a .573 OPS against same-handed pitchers, though his double did come off of a right-handed reliever.

— Center fielder Matty Johnson contributed two hits, a walk and three RBIs in Salem’€™s rout of the Mudcats, bringing his line to .263/.331/.331 on the season. What stood out more, however, was his three stolen bases. The speedy 26-year-old has swiped 11 bags this season while being caught three times.

— Catcher Jayson Hernandez was the only member of the Red Sox lineup to record three hits on the day, going 3-for-5 with a double and RBI. The 25-year-old has raised his average all the  way to .265 from .189 less than a week ago thanks to two three-hit games (with a 0-for-3 day sandwiched in between).

— With five innings of one-run ball, Cody Kukuk notched his first Carolina League win in just his second outing with Salem. The lefty struck out three and allowed just three hits, but walks continued to be a problem for the 21-year-old. Kukuk issued five free passes in the outing, and is averaging exactly one walk per inning in High-A after averaging 4.5 walk per nine innings in 24 single-A innings this season. Despite the iffy command, however, Kukuk has been keeping opponents from making solid contact; Carolina League batters are hitting just .161 against him, and he’€™s yet to allow a extra-base hit in nine innings since his promotion from Greenville.

SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 9-2 LOSS VS. GREENSBORO (MARLINS)

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Wendell Rijo continued his scorching start to the season, collecting three hits (his first three-hit performance of the season) while clubbing his eighth double of the year and driving in a run. He’€™s strung together three multi-hit games, and is 10-for-20 with four walks and four extra-base hits over his last five games. The 18-year-old ranks 10th amongst all qualifiers in the minor leagues in OBP with a .468 mark.

— South Atlantic league hitters have not been kind to 21-year-old Ty Buttrey. The right-hander was knocked around on Thursday, allowing a career-high eight earned runs on six hits and four walks in just 2 2/3 innings. The performance was not much of an improvement on his Single-A debut, in which he allowed four runs and was unable to get through the first inning. Lack of command really hurt Buttrey; all four of the men he walked came around to score, with one of them crossing the plate on a wild pitch from the starter. Buttrey’€™s saddled with an ugly 29.70 ERA through two starts and has taken the loss in both outings.

— Outfielder Bo Greenwell went 1-for-2 with a double and a walk, just his sixth base on balls in 101 plate appearances this season. Greenwell has been swinging a hot bat as of late, hitting .356 with six extra-base hits over his last 11 games.

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