FORT WAYNE — On a cold, drizzly night, the Fort Wayne TinCaps suffered their first loss of the season to the Detroit Tigers prospect-loaded High-A affiliate, the West Michigan Whitecaps 6-3.
The loss though wasn’t the story for San Diego Padres fans.
The return to the mound of one-time super prospect Anderson Espinoza, 23, and his mid-90s fastball after an absence of five years was reason to celebrate whatever the outcome of the game.
After the Padres acquired him from the Boston Red Sox in 2016, the right-hander pitched in eight games before going down with Tommy John surgery. After a long rehabilitation, he went down again in Spring Training of 2019 with the same injury.
Tonight was his first official outing back on a mound in over 1700 days.
“The most difficult part of the rehab process is the mentality of trying to stay positive,” said Espinoza in a post-game Zoom conference. “But because of what I went through, I am a better person and a better pitcher.”
As Padres’ Senior Director of Player Development Sam Geaney said in our 2021 Fort Wayne TinCaps Preview, the organization plans to limit Espinoza to two-innings stints to make sure he gets regular work; but its hard to consider his outing tonight anything other than a success.
He threw 26 pitches,17 for strikes and struck out three against one hit and no walks. He touched 97 on the mound and consistently sat in the mid-90s with his fastball. He showed a feel, but not consistency, with his secondary pitches, especially his curve ball.
“The curveball is the most difficult pitch for me to throw because that was the pitch where I felt something in 2019,” said Espinoza. “Mainly because you have to do something different with your hand. But I have been doing some drills in the throwing program to get it back where I need it to be at the Peoria complex.”
TinCaps Pitching Coach Jimmy Jones was impressed with Espinoza’s performance, particularly his confidence after being away from the mound for such a long time. But he also cautioned that the process will be a slower one.
“The next start will look similar to this one, and from there we will probably start layering some more pitches and innings on. Right now the main goal is just making him feel as comfortable as possible and keep him healthy.”
Espinoza is also returning with a new pitch, a slider to go along with his fastball, changeup and curve.
“Anderson can spin a curveball really well, he hasn’t been able to throw it for a lot of strikes in the instructs and in Spring Training. The slider comes out really well out of his hand and he can throw it for strikes.
“I’ve always found that if you can throw a curveball, then throwing a slider shouldn’t be a problem. Usually pitchers have trouble going from the slider to the curve.”
Catcher Adam Kerner, an undrafted free agent signee from the University of San Diego, got his first professional hit tonight with a triple to right field. Last year’s draft of only five rounds particularly hurt players like Kerner who were projected as middle round selections.
TinCap Notes: Somewhat lost in all of the attention on Espinoza, RHP Gabe Mosser pitched very well with 3 2/3 innings of one-run ball… Tomorrow night RHP Edgar Martinez will take the mound for Fort Wayne.