This Rox Minor Leaguer excelled in '23 debut

April 14th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Thomas Harding's Rockies Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

DENVER -- Gabriel Hughes was too good for the plan set for him in his first 2023 start at High-A Spokane’s 7-2 Opening Night victory.

The Rockies’ top pick (10th overall) in the 2022 MLB Draft and the team’s No. 6 prospect per MLB Pipeline held Eugene without a baserunner for five innings and struck out six in Spokane’s 7-2 opening night victory.

The plan was for the right-handed Hughes, 21, to throw either 80 pitches or go five innings. He completed his assignment in 63 pitches, and he was so good with his basic repertoire that he didn’t have to dip much into his pitch mix.

“He started out by using his fastball,” Spokane pitching coach Ryan Kibler said by phone. “He and the catcher, Braxton Fulford, quickly recognized that fastballs on the bottom of the strike zone, combined with fastballs at the top of the zone, combined with a swing-and-miss slider that he commanded well in and out of the zone, was a winning combination.

“They tried to get to the secondary pitches, and he threw a few cutters and changeups for strikes. But they realized that the fastball-slider combination was going to be unbeatable.”

The opener had added juice for Hughes, who played his college ball in Spokane at Gonzaga University.

“I think [I was] a little nervous, just first game of the year,” Hughes told the Spokesman-Review newspaper. “We haven’t played yet, so going out Opening Night it’s gonna be nervous no matter what. But you get out there, and you realize it’s still the same game. You’re still out there playing baseball, still out there pitching. So it becomes a lot more fun after that.”

Hughes recognized he could force quick outs.

“He had a couple of low pitch-count innings, getting outs in three pitches or less,” Kibler said. “The best part about that was watching how satisfied he was with that and not trying to punch everybody out. Strikeouts can be impressive but can be a mistake at times. I was excited to see him get through the third inning on eight or nine pitches and be satisfied with it.”

Kibler considered sending Hughes to the bullpen after he left the game, just to reach his pitch minimum, but Hughes had done enough on a damp, chilly Pacific Northwest night. “I let him sit right there at 63, nice and fresh for next Tuesday,” Kibler said.

Knowing that Hughes would be assigned to Spokane, Kibler spent time with him during Spring Training and now echoes the raves of other club pitching personnel.

“He is the total package -- the above-average stuff combined with being a strike-thrower at the same time, combined with intelligence and pitch ability, combined with the competitive nature and the will to win -- he has an outstanding combination that you don't see every day.” Kibler said.