Two weeks ago, Quinn Priester tossed an immaculate inning in a 10-strikeout effort. On Friday, he found a way to one-up himself.
The start was reminiscent of Pablo López’s July 11 start for the Marlins, when he set a Major League record by striking out the first nine Braves he saw. Though Minor League records are inexact, Priester was at least sure of the nine-strikeout beginning’s place in his own personal history.
“It was so special. I've never done that before,” he told MLB.com over the phone Friday night. “I feel like I've said that to you twice in the last few weeks.”
The 20-year-old right-hander’s run of K’s came to an end when Tourists leadoff hitter J.C. Correa knocked a 1-2 dribbler to shortstop Liover Peguero for an otherwise easy out. Though it kept him from outdoing the Major League record set by Lopez, Priester admitted that Correa’s grounder played into his plan for much of the evening and season at large.
“Every single pitch I throw, I have the intent to get an out,” he said. “That's something that I learned from Steven Brault in the spring. He said his mindset is that every single pitch he throws comes with the intent to get a soft ball in play and an out. That was pretty much what I did tonight, and then because I was able to have good command, I was getting the swing-and-misses and different things, but ultimately I just let those happen and didn’t go after them.”
Whether they were happy accidents or not, Priester kept the K’s coming with four more in his final three innings. His 13 punchouts beat out his previous career high of 10, set in that previous gem at Winston-Salem on Aug. 13, and he was on such a run that he was allowed to set another best with 96 pitches (63 strikes). Of those 96, another career-high 21 were swings-and-misses.
The 6-foot-3 hurler typically throws in the mid-to-high-90s with his fastball and has earned strong reviews for both his high-spin curveball and slider. It was the former that had the better feel Friday night, but either breaking ball can be used prominently to keep hitters whiffing.
“It really just depends on the hitter and how I've pitched that certain count or certain at-bat,” he said of choosing between the curve and the slider. “It's just one of those things where I feel confident in being able to differentiate what I need, but I have full confidence in both. I honestly don't think either is a bad option whenever I'm going for a strikeout or any out.”
In fact, going to both was a key difference between Friday’s gem and Priester’s outing one week ago, in which he surrendered four earned runs on seven hits in five innings against Bowling Green.
“Just being able to mix better,” he said of the adjustments between starts. “I was really determined to you know beat [Bowling Green] with hard stuff and be super aggressive, and that almost worked against me a little bit. Tonight, I was able to mix a lot better and keep hitters off balance.”
Priester’s bid at a perfect game lasted one batter into the sixth inning when Yanier Diaz lined a single the other way to right field on an 0-2 count. It took the Grasshoppers starter 13 pitches to retire the next two Asheville hitters, leading to a mound visit from manager Kieran Mattison as he sat at 93 pitches, tying his previous season high.
“I saw the look on his face and I'm like, ‘He's not pulling me from this game right now,’ or at least what went through my mind was that if he was, I don't know if I'm going to let him,” Priester laughed. “But ultimately he came out, he said, ‘Hey, this is going to be your last batter. This is your game. I want you to finish this.’ So I thought let’s go, let’s do it.”
Three pitches later, Priester got Correa to line out to left for the final out of the sixth and his entire outing.
The Pirates’ No. 2 prospect now leads all High-A qualifiers with a 2.86 ERA and has paired that with 87 strikeouts through 85 innings in technically his first full season since being drafted 18th overall in 2019. It’s an impressive sprint to the finish of 2021 for the big right-hander, but even after another night of firsts, he still keeps his eyes pointed firmly higher.
“My goal is to be able to pitch like I did tonight in the big leagues,” Priester said. “It's a good first step, being able to compete and feel good at this level. I just want to continue to do good things wherever I go, and ultimately, I hope it translates to the big league level when my time is ready.”
Colin Selby struck out six over three scoreless innings of relief to preserve the one-hitter and give Greensboro pitchers 19 total K’s on the night. No. 68 overall prospect Nick Gonzales was one of four Grasshoppers to homer in the win with Aaron Shackleford, Jonah Davis and Matt Gorski joining in on the fun.