Image credit: Brendan McKay
DURHAM, N.C. — On the second day of their rehab appearances with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Yankees sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge were silenced by a trio of Durham pitchers that showed off the talent and depth that has helped the Rays’ farm system become one of the most celebrated in the game.
The Bulls opened with Jake Cronenworth, a strong-armed former two-way player at Michigan who had made all of three pitching appearances as a professional. Cronenworth, 25, also leads the International League in batting average (.357) and on-base percentage (.448) and spends most of his time holding down shortstop. Counting Saturday, he’s opened four games for Durham this year and has showed impressive arm strength.
He’s played in front of raucous crowds before, including against Louisville (which had a roster that featured current Bulls Brendan McKay and Nick Solak) in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament. Saturday night, however, was a little different. The first two hitters he faced—Judge and Stanton—have combined to win a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, have made six All-Star appearances and generate massive power from frames that would fit nicely into the universe of Marvel superheroes.
Stanton and Judge’s appearance helped fuel a crowd of 12,000 on Saturday night, the largest ever at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Against that backdrop, Cronenworth was especially impressive. He got Judge to ground to shortstop on a cut fastball, then struck out Stanton swinging on a nastier version of the same pitch. Cronenworth lost the zone a little bit afterward, but finished the inning unscathed before handing the ball off to McKay for the next five innings.
“I think I figure things out in between each outing, using those little cues and tips I get from (pitching coach Rick Knapp) and every outing it, especially the fastball, gets a little better,” he said. “I kind of lost it there on the third guy a little bit, but I was very pleased with where I was at.”
Like Cronenworth, McKay is also a two-way talent. He slots in at DH on days when he doesn’t pitch, and he has already swatted three home runs since joining Durham in late May. And while his offensive game is interesting, his left arm is what’s likely to make him a star in the big leagues. McKay has been stellar all season and sparkled again on Saturday. The lefthander, who admittedly did not have the best command of his fastball, spun five innings of one-hit shutout ball with seven strikeouts and one walk.
“You’re amped up to face the hitters that you know you’re going to face, and you try and stay as calm as you can and stay as within yourself as you can knowing that you’re going to face those hitters and not try to do more than you need to do,” McKay said. “You don’t want to start spraying fastballs or anything and just try to calm yourself down.”
Whatever McKay used to keep himself in the moment obviously worked. He held Judge and Stanton to a combined 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and a routine grounder to shortstop. All three of those strikeouts came on curveballs, including a swinging whiff of Stanton in the third and then called strikeouts in the sixth inning. He finished his night by punching out second baseman Breyvic Valera before leaving to a rousing ovation.
“Special night,” Durham manager Brady Williams said. “It was Cronenworth and McKay, and it was fun for both of those guys to face, obviously, Stanton and Judge, and then Ian Gibaut at the end of the game. Those are three guys that we’ve talked about, pitching-wise, and to see those three guys get those guys out was special.”
Even without the intrigue created by the presence of Judge and Stanton, McKay’s outing on Saturday added another highlight to what has been one of the most impressive seasons in the minor leagues. Between Double-A and Triple-A, he sports a 6-0, 1.31 record with 83 strikeouts against 12 walks in 65.1 innings. Scouts consistently point to his impeccable command (although he did have trouble locating his fastball to his arm side on Saturday) and above-average arsenal as reason to believe he has a future as a No. 2 starter. He’s squarely in the conversation for the title of best pitching prospect in the minor leagues.
After Mike Franco and Vidal Nuno held down the fort for the next two innings, Gibaut took the ball for the ninth inning trying to protect a two-run lead against Judge, then Stanton, then Valera. Gibaut presented an interesting challenge for the two Yankees’ sluggers—of the three pitchers they faced Saturday, he was the only true fireballer who might be able to replicate the type of fastball they were likely to see once they returned to the big leagues.
Gibaut, who entered the year as the Rays’ No. 18 prospect, was making just his second appearance with Durham after missing the majority of the first half with a strained lat muscle. Normally, the 25-year-old Texan pitches exactly as you’d imagine a 25-year-old Texan would pitch, by daring you to hit a steady stream of high-octane gasoline. His first pitch to Judge was an elevated 95 mph fastball that the Yankees slugger got behind and popped harmlessly on the infield.
He started Stanton with a pair of 95 mph fastballs for strikes one and two before breaking off four consecutive sliders that Stanton either fouled off or watched bend out of the strike zone. Gibaut finished the at-bat by getting Stanton to nub a 96 mph heater weakly back to the mound. Although Stanton’s final at-bat sent the pinstriped portion of the crowd heading for the exits, Gibaut closed the win by getting Valera to fly to center field.
“You’ve got to treat it just like you’re getting your business done,” Gibaut said. “You’re going out there and trying to win a ballgame just like them. They’re trying to do some damage while I’m trying to get them out. I know it’s a little bit of an X-factor for sure, but I was just going in there trying to do my thing.”
The Rays entered the year with a farm system ranked No. 2 in baseball, and on Saturday night three of their most interesting and versatile talents proved themselves on a tremendous stage against two of the faces of the sport.