Image credit: Ryne Nelson (Photo courtesy Hillsboro Hops)
KEIZER, Ore. — This season was supposed to be Ryne Nelson‘s coming-out party. After two seasons in the Oregon bullpen, the big-armed righthander opened the year in Ducks’ weekend rotation and was ranked by Baseball America as a second-team preseason college All-American.
He made just four starts on the season before injuries and ineffectiveness caused him to move back to the bullpen. He’d always shown prime-time stuff, including a fastball that could touch triple digits, but he had trouble finding the strike zone often enough to remain in a starter’s role.
Nelson finished his final season with the Ducks 3-4, 4.29 but with a mark of 14.4 strikeouts per nine innings. That figure placed him at fourth among all Division I pitchers, just ahead of his current teammates with short-season Hillsboro Drey Jameson (Ball State) and Nick Snyder (West Virginia).
Despite the inconsistent season, the D-backs were intrigued enough by Nelson’s stuff to take him with their second-round selection and sign him for a bonus of $1.1 million.
In Hillsboro’s 6-3 win over Salem-Keizer in Game 2 of the Northwest League’s South Division Series, in which the team clinched a berth in the championship series, Nelson showed exactly why Arizona thought so highly of him.
He entered in the fourth inning in relief of starter Conor Grammes—the D-backs’ fifth-round selection out of Xavier—who had allowed two runs over the first three innings. Grammes had run his fastball up to 97 mph, but he didn’t throw enough quality strikes to keep a young Salem-Keizer team on the board.
“Our team’s been swinging it really well,” Nelson said. “So I wanted to just go out there and throw strikes and let them play defense, let us have a shot and keep us in the game.”
He held the Volcanoes dormant through the middle innings, but he was particularly dominant in the fifth and sixth frames. That’s when a low-90s fastball that touched 95 mph became a mid-90s fastball that touched 97 mph. Both versions of the pitch were thrown with excellent plane and angle, as well as crisp action that allowed it to run away from righthanded hitters. It was especially effective when it was located down in the zone.
Nelson paired the fastball primarily with a fringe-average curveball early and a dynamic, mid-80s slider that broke on a dime and could serve as a wipeout pitch as he moves up the ladder. The result was three shutout innings with four punchouts, and a swinging-strike rate of 23 percent (9 of 39 pitches).
“That’s usually how it goes—you get a little more feel as you keep going,” Nelson said. “It was a lot of fun, a lot of adrenaline going. I just felt really good today.”
The three zeroes Nelson put up allowed the Hops to add to the one-run lead they held when he entered. Consecutive run-scoring doubles in the fifth inning from designated hitter Ryan January and shortstop Liover Peguero extended the advantage to three runs, and the Hops added one more on a wild pitch in the seventh inning.
Relievers Liu Fuenmayor and Justin Garcia allowed one run—a home run from Salem-Keizer designated hitter Harrison Freed off of Fuenmayor—before things got dicey in the ninth inning. Eduardo Herrera took the ball from Garcia and got two quick outs before Tyler Flores walked and Freed singled. Jeff Houghtby followed with a walk, loading the bases and bringing right fielder Jairo Pomares to the plate as the potential winning run.
Hillsboro manager Javier Colina pulled Herrera in favor of Mailon Arroyo, who fed Pomares a first-pitch breaking ball for a called first strike. Pomares popped the next pitch into foul ground, where third baseman Tristin English was waiting to squeeze it and send the visiting Hops into a raucous celebration on the infield.
Arroyo finished the job, but Nelson’s three-inning bridge allowed Hillsboro to reach the promised land for the first time since 2015.