After Shawn Michaels took the big boot, leg drop and 1-2-3 from Hulk Hogan at Summerslam 2005, he approached the legend in the middle of the ring, extended his hand and said, “I had to know.” It wasn’t until Michaels was actually there, in the ring with Hogan, that he fully understood the scope of the big guy’s dominance.
For the past two summers, I’ve heard the buzz from the northern outpost of Portland, ME on Henry Owens, a 6’6″, 205 lb. left-hander with a repertoire of wiffleball pitches that left Double-A lineups flailing and flummoxed. Mixing an 88-92 mph fastball with late tail, a plus change and a big, loopy curve, this year Owens mowed down Eastern League competition to the tune of 14 wins, the most ever for a Sea Dogs pitcher and first Boston pitching prospect to hit that mark since Jon Lester.
In his first start for the PawSox on August 4th, he carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning and thoroughly embarrassed the Columbus Clippers. Scribes across New England spilled ink all over their desks in their rush to praise the wiry lefty.
So last night, I headed down to Pawtucket, 30 minutes from my home, to see for myself. I had to know.
An announced crowd of 9,444 buzzed as Owens loped to the mound, and you could hear the “oohs” and “ahs” as he recovered from a leadoff bunt single to retire the next two batters on strikes, pounding the catcher’s mitt with his fastball, changing speeds and making batters look silly. In contrast to Scranton Wilkes-Barre starter Bryan Mitchell, who labored through the first, Owens was in complete control.
With the runner on first, Owens worked from the stretch, leaning in for the sign before each pitch and swinging his left arm in a manner reminiscent of former Red Sox hurler Rod Beck. Catcher Blake Swihart, another prize currently stashed in Pawtucket, nailed the overzealous bunter attempting to steal second to end the frame.
But in the top of the second, Mookie Betts – let’s not forget, he’s a converted second baseman – goofed on a fly ball that came to rest on the warning track in center for a triple. An RBI single followed, and the shine was off.
Owens later left a couple of pitches up and they got hammered over the wall. In sum, he allowed four earned runs on six hits (two homers) over six frames and took the loss. And while the back of opposing starter Mitchell’s baseball card is rather pedestrian compared to Owens, he cobbled together five effective innings to grab the win.
Sure, Owens tallied seven strikeouts on the night. He demonstrated an innate ability to hide his pitches and drastically change speeds. His height, flowing locks, and weapon of choice (left arm) are reminiscent of Randy Johnson. His delivery is as fluid as can be.
But he just turned 22. Like last night, there will be bumps in the road. And it’s unlikely the organization will hotshot him to Fenway when there are still learning experiences to be had under the lights in Rhode Island. For a guy who already exhibits considerable poise and polish, Owens will develop even more by the time he makes his Major League debut. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s true. And fans should be very excited.
When our tickets get punched and we stride through the turnstiles, there’s a range of emotions for fans about what lies ahead. Will the team win? Will our favorite player hit a home run? Will someone get nailed by a foul ball? The ultimate is to be a part of history. As I walked along the concourse at McCoy last night, I legitimately wondered if Henry Owens would throw a no-hitter.
He didn’t. But I had to know.