Quinn Priester had already worked three-pitch strikeouts to Yoelqui Cespedes and Alex Destino, the third and fourth batters in High-A Winston-Salem’s lineup, to open the sixth inning Friday.
Greensboro’s right-handed starter threw a first-pitch 88 mph slider to Luis Curbelo that just knicked the high outside corner. Strike one. He stuck with the breaking pitch to keep the right-handed hitter off balance for a swing and a miss. Strike two. Then, came decision time.
“We were going to go to a fastball up, and that's when I was like, ‘Hold on,’” Priester said. “I’m not going to throw something out of the zone here. We’re either going to get a foul ball or a swing and miss, but we’re going to throw my best ball in the zone. That was the slider today. I gripped it, threw it as hard as I can.”
Priester got Curbelo to lunge at another breaking pitch on the outside corner for his ninth pitch, ninth strike and third strikeout of the sixth inning.
The 10 punchouts bested the No. 34 overall prospect’s previous career high of seven, achieved twice before, and his seven frames matched the seven he also threw back on July 30 against this same Dash offense.
“Honestly the biggest thing was just maintaining arm speed, especially with two strikes,” Priester said. “Having that fastball command really helped tonight. Being able to work in on guys and make them respect that and then being able to go off-speed. The slider was really good tonight, so to be able to tunnel that and throw it off that fastball was a huge reason for the strikeouts.”
It was efficiency like that sixth frame that helped the 20-year-old work so deep into Friday’s start. When he fanned Caberea Weaver to end the seventh, he completed his outing with 90 pitches, including 59 strikes and 18 swings-and-misses. (For reference, Tanner Houck led the Majors on Thursday with 18 whiffs, and AL MVP candidate Shohei Ohtani had 14 such outcomes.)
That’s even more impressive given that Priester opened the gem by loading the bases with no outs in a first inning that included back-to-back walks of Jose Rodriguez and Cespedes, the latter coming without a single strike. He rebounded by fanning Destino on four pitches (including two whiffs on breaking pitches) and got Curbelo to bounce into a threat-ending, 6-4-3 double play.
“I told myself in that moment that it really can't get any worse,” he said of the first inning. “It's darn near as bad a start as you can have. Let's just throw the ball, give myself a chance. I know I have a really good sinker to get myself out of situations like that, so getting that strikeout with no outs was huge. Throwing the sinker next pitch, getting the double play after it, that pretty much got myself the momentum that I needed to have the night that I did.”
Priester scattered six hits over his seven innings but didn’t walk another batter after the pair in the first.
Taken 18th overall by the Pirates in the 2019 Draft, Priester can throw in the mid-90s as he did at times Friday. He typically earns the best grades for his curveball, but his upper-80s slider was his best such offering in this gem. The Illinois native now owns a 2.80 ERA -- its lowest mark of the season -- with 68 strikeouts through 74 innings in 2021, all with the Grasshoppers.
“The biggest thing has been being where my feet are at,” Priester said of his growth this summer. “Maybe if a call didn’t go my way, I would let it eat at me, or if I gave up a hit, that would get to me a little bit. Tonight, I just went. No overthinking. I only cared about what I could control.”
The Greensboro pitcher wasn’t the Pirates prospect to play a starring role in Friday’s win. The organization’s top prospect Nick Gonzales went 4-for-5 with a triple from the second spot in the lineup. Through 11 games in August, the infielder owns a .364/.451/.705 line with eight extra-base hits for what is easily his hottest month in pro ball.
With Liover Peguero already a Greensboro mainstay and 2021 No. 1 overall pick Henry Davis joining just this week, the High-A roster is quickly becoming a must-follow for folks back in Pittsburgh.
“You come to the field every single day,” Priester said, “and you think, ‘I’m going to see something special.’”