Kowar strings together 6 frames with slider

Royals rookie right-hander shakes off tough 1st, notches career-high 7 strikeouts

September 8th, 2021

BALTIMORE -- It wasn’t the start that right-hander wanted, but he made the most of it.

After falling behind early on a pair of two-run homers, Kowar rebounded to retire 12 of the last 14 batters he faced in the Royals’ 7-3 loss to the Orioles on Tuesday night at Camden Yards.

Kowar threw 105 pitches, logging a career-high seven strikeouts. The key for Kowar, according to manager Mike Matheny, is his fastball. If Kowar gets his fastball working, then his changeup and slider work well behind it to get strikeouts.

But Kowar lost confidence in his fastball early. The rookie walked the first two batters he faced. Over those two plate appearances, Kowar threw seven fastballs and five offspeed pitches, but he didn’t turn to his secondary stuff until the end of the first one, when he threw a changeup for ball four. Ball four in the second was also a changeup.

Kowar, ranked as the club’s No. 5 prospect by MLB Pipeline, chalked those two walks up to his attempt to get “too cute” early on.

“He was trying to make perfect pitches the first two hitters,” Matheny said. “You walk the first two guys of the game, you’re going to find yourself in a little bit of a mess. And then I think he lost some of the confidence in his fastball, and his fastball’s too good to not keep trying to grind through it.

“But I’ll tell you, he did a very good job of staying in the game by pitching a very uncharacteristic game for him. [He] used his slider I’m sure more than he’s ever used it in his life -- probably his best pitch today.”

So Kowar and All-Star catcher Salvador Perez adjusted, which resulted in an uncharacteristically slider-heavy game for the 24-year-old righty.

“[Kowar and Perez] got to the point where they just had to figure out ways, different ways to get guys out,” Matheny said. “[The Orioles] were sitting on the changeup [and] he couldn’t execute the fastball like he wanted to. It’s pretty much like a broken record, we say the same thing -- it seems like every starter, our guys are controlling the counts with the fastball, especially the changeup guys. If they’re not making them aware, speeding them up, it’s going to be a tough day.”

Of Kowar’s 105 pitches, 54 were fastballs (51 percent), 26 were sliders (25 percent) and 25 were changeups (24 percent). Up until this point, his slider has been an elusive third pitch that he’s worked on honing this season -- according to Statcast, Kowar uses it only 4.3 percent of the time.

Even though both of the O’s homers came on offspeed pitches, it wasn’t so much the pitch type but Kowar’s not-quite-there command that led to the hits. DJ Stewart’s first-inning knock came on a changeup that Kowar described as a “mistake pitch,” while Austin Hays’ third-inning blast was off a flat slider that he left up in the zone.

Once Kowar adjusted, the final five of his seven strikeouts came on his changeup. After recording a strikeout in the first off his fastball and a pair of strikeouts in the second (one off his fastball and one off his changeup), Kowar retired three batters in a row with strikeouts off his changeup to get out of the third.

“We talk about [how] the importance of having that other pitch is to get you back into counts,” Matheny said. “And that’s exactly what he did. Gave up one home run on a slider that just got a little flat, left it up in the zone to Hays. But besides that, not a lot of damage with it. [The slider] got him back into some counts, and when he did have his fastball going -- and then the changeup late -- it’s just him continuing to be challenged with what it looks like when he’s ‘right.’”

The proof is in the pudding, and Kowar’s slider and changeup combined to account for 19 of his 36 called strikes and whiffs. On top of that, a whopping 42 percent of his sliders were called strikes or whiffs.

“It’s all a learning process right now for him and some of the other younger guys,” shortstop Nicky Lopez said. “You can take some notes on this one, be like, ‘All right, I didn’t have my stuff.’ But he was able to get through six, which was huge for us and the bullpen. … I think that was definitely a positive.”