MODESTO, Calif. -- It was Mardi Gras Night at John Thurman Field, and if Henderson Alvarez's performance for the Stockton Ports tonight deserves a slogan, "Laissez les bon temps roulez" fits well. Alvarez did not let the warm weather and strong breeze out to left field factor into his game at all, picking up seven ground ball outs and four strikeouts in four innings for the Stockton Ports against the Modesto Nuts, conceding just one run. The Ports won the game 7-2. He threw 48 pitches (35 for strikes) on a night he was permitted to go up to 60, but hit his innings limit before then.
An 18-pitch first inning was Alvarez's only spot of trouble, if you could even call it that. A leadoff single up the middle by Nuts center fielder Max White and a five-pitch walk to catcher Dom Nunez put two runners on with one out. Alvarez threw a wild pitch to advance the runners to second and third.
Alvarez's lone run scored when designated hitter Roberto Ramos grounded out to first. Alvarez escaped any more damage with another ground ball out, though some credit belongs to Ports second baseman Joe Bennie for making a good ranging play to his left on a dive. Including those final two outs in the first, Alvarez retired his last 11 batters consecutively.
Last Friday, A's general manager David Forst told 95.7 The Game that if everything goes right, Alvarez could join the A's rotation in about three weeks, which would be in line with the expiration of Alvarez's official rehab time on May 20. That gives Alvarez time for two or three more rehab starts, though the A's could place him on optional assignment if he needs more time.
From my perch on the press level, it was a little tough to make out exactly the pitches Alvarez was throwing, but somehow I get the feeling that's what it feels like to face Alvarez in the batter's box. Alvarez has five different pitches, including an absolutely fascinating slow curve (some might call it an eephus) that first clocked in at 59 MPH. That pitch resulted in a grounder to first. Here's an example of two at that speed:
In his major league games, he usually only throws it once or twice a game, though this time he threw it once an inning, getting clocked by the stadium gun at 59, 62, 64, and 64. The results? An easy grounder to first, a swinging bunt to the left side of the mound, a called strike, and a ball outside. It's a hell of a thing to face when you've been seeing sinkers and fastballs between 90-93 all night.
One item that won't show up in the box score is Alvarez's impressive fielding. He finished third among NL pitchers in 2014's Fielding Bible Awards, and he finished third in assists as a pitcher in the NL that year with 36. I think it's a big part of why he finished that year with an ERA (2.65) nearly a full run below his FIP (3.58).
That second inning swinging bunt off Alvarez's slow curve was fielded by Alvarez running to the right side of the mound, turning and falling as he ran away from first base. The throw was a perfect one to beat Nuts second baseman Luis Jean to the bag by a step. It's the kind of play where you might wonder if a better third baseman might have had the play, but Alvarez clearly got to the baseball first here.
Alvarez's other good play was in the fourth. A weak ground ball to the right side forced Ports first baseman to charge hard at the ball and make a difficult throw to a covering Alvarez at first. The throw was a little bit behind Alvarez, but he was able to make the grab and touch first ahead of catcher Dom Nunez.
His fastball and sinker were in the 90-94 range, one scout told me, which is perhaps a bit below the average of 93-94 on his sinker and fastball in 2014. We'll see if that ends up mattering once he gets to the major league level, but he looked extremely comfortable tonight.