IT BEGAN WITH a fastball. For Hunter Harvey, it always begins with a fastball.
The Delmarva Shorebirds’ staff ace goes nowhere without his 94-mph fastball, but for a brief moment to start a game this past Monday against Lakewood, his fastball had a mind of its own.
Harnessing heat has been a season-long battle for Harvey, despite some very gaudy statistics, and issuing a leadoff walk to Lakewood’s J.P. Crawford seemed to portend another night-long quest for control.
Two meek fly balls followed, both resulting in outs, then it happened: Lakewood cleanup hitter Willians Astudillo was completely overpowered for a meek popup to second.
Harvey had reined in the beast and what followed was a dominance worthy of the Baltimore Orioles’ faith in him.
Beginning with the final out of the second inning through the second out of the fourth, Harvey fanned every batter he faced. Six in all. The first three stared helplessly at third strikes while the next three flailed uselessly.
The book end was Astudillo’s second plate appearance. By the time he used his bat to fan the catcher, Astudillo had seen all of Harvey’s pitches, not just the fastball. Harvey had mixed in a rapidly evolving changeup and put Astudillo away with a tightly wound curve that spun away from his lunging swing.
Harvey sat down righties with that curve, but what Delmarva manager Ryan Minor lauded was his ability to flummox lefties with the changeup. All the while, Harvey’s fastball command remained pinpoint and deadly.
“His fastball command and being able to throw his changeup to lefthanded batters was big,” Minor said. “And he was able to mix in his curve ball late in the game against righties.”
Harvey’s final tally: 7 innings pitched, one hit allowed, one walk and 10 strikeouts. It was as dominating a performance as any pitcher has posted in the South Atlantic League this season.
Afterward, Harvey said it was the first time this year he had all three pitches working at the same time.
“I had good focus and good pace and the zone was good,” Harvey said. “I had good command of it tonight. Some nights it’s kind of all over the place. This is the first night I’ve had the (changeup and curve) on together, so that ended up being pretty good.”
Proving just how elusive sustained control can be, Harvey labored Sunday at West Virginia. While his fastball velocity remained consistent, his changeup betrayed him and his curve fluctuated between sliding and hooking.
Francisco Diaz ended Harvey’s day by battling off several two-strike offerings before crushing a two-run blast to right-center field with two outs in the fifth inning. In all, Harvey allowed three runs on seven hits and two walks and hit two batters while striking out five.
The outing was reminiscent of a rough turn in Savannah on April 29 when he allowed four runs on three hits and four walks.
Through it all, Harvey remains a study in confidence, unflappable and seemingly indignant in those times when his plus stuff fails to surrender to his control. He works fast and, when a team complies by being aggressive – like Lakewood on Monday – he can shred his victims.
On days like Sunday when West Virginia worked counts and incessantly fouled off two-strike offerings, Harvey battled to remain on top of his pitches. Nonetheless, his composure was evident despite the hiccups as he ended three of four innings with strikeouts.
“I always go out there and go right after them,” Harvey said. “I don’t like messing around too much and I don’t like giving them too much of a chance.”
Through eight starts, Harvey has had three choppy outings and three brilliant outings, highlighting his battle for control. Still, his highs are very high, which is why he sports a 1.85 earned run average and a 0.98 WHIP. His 50 strikeouts were tied for the lead league entering Monday’s games.
For the remainder of this season, Harvey said his primary goals will be to maintain that aggressive rhythm while getting his delivery to repeat.
“Just keep going out there and doing the same thing,” he said. “Keeping a good pace and have good arm speed on all my pitches and keep command.”