On Baseball: Stars align in Sea Dogs-Fisher Cats series
On Sunday they were teammates, pitching back-to-back innings to start the U.S. on its way to a 3-2 victory over the World team in the All-Star Futures Game, Major League Baseball’s showcase for its best minor-league prospects.
Saturday, barring a promotion in the meantime, Portland Sea Dogs ace Henry Owens and the New Hampshire Fisher Cats’ Daniel Norris will be mound opponents, starting the third game in the latest series between the Red Sox’ and Blue Jays’ Double-A affiliates.
The Sea Dogs, coming out of the Eastern League All-Star break with the best record in Minor League Baseball above the Single-A level, arrive in Manchester Thursday for the 7:05 p.m. opener to the four-game series.
Portland and New Hampshire sent a combined seven players to Wednesday night’s EL showcase in Altoona, Pa., and neither Owens, Norris nor Fisher Cats outfielder Dalton Pompey, another Futures Game participant, was among them.
Sean Coyle, who also started the Futures Game at second base for the U.S. Team, represented the Sea Dogs in Altoona along with fellow infielder Derrik Gibson, catcher Blake Swihart and lefty reliever Robby Scott. New Hampshire sent its own second baseman, Jon Berti, along with relievers Dustin Antolin and Randy Boone.
But the biggest star in town this week — in more ways than one — will be Owens ... again, provided he doesn’t get the call to Triple-A Pawtucket between now and Saturday’s 7:05 p.m. start.
A 6-foot, 6-inch left-hander who turns 22 on Monday, Owens is 12-3 with a 2.21 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. In 17 starts totaling 105 2/3 innings, he’s struck out 111 and walked 40. Clearly, he’s only a Jake Peavy trade away from literally taking his game to the next level.
Sunday only enhanced Owens’ status as the Red Sox’ top pitching prospect, as he started for the U.S. and threw one shutout inning, allowing one hit and registering one strikeout.
Norris, 21 and with only four Double-A games under his belt, was even better. Also left-handed, he retired the World team in order in the second inning, also recording one K.
Owens, Coyle and Swihart are the main reasons the Sea Dogs entered the break with a 63-34 record (11-4 against the Fisher Cats) and 4 1/2-game lead in the Eastern Division despite an exodus of talent including Mookie Betts, Travis Shaw and Deven Marrero to Pawtucket — and, in Betts’ case, on to Boston.
Pompey — batting just .154 in 15 games with the Fisher Cats but with talent evidenced by the .319 average, six home runs, 29 stolen bases and .868 OPS he accumulated in 70 games with Single-A Dunedin — also made a good impression in the Futures Game, going 2-for-4 at the plate.
Injured early in the season, Coyle, 22, returned to action just in time to succeed Betts at second and has continued to give the Sea Dogs outrageous offensive production from that position. Yet another under-sized infielder with surprising power, the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Coyle is batting .335 with 11 home runs, 47 RBIs, 13 stolen bases and a slash line of .412/.585/.997 in 64 games.
That production has enabled him to leap from 23rd to 13th among Boston minor-leaguers ranked by the talent evaluators at SoxProspects.com, 10 spots behind Owens.
Just ahead of Owens — and right behind No. 1 prospect Betts — is Swihart, 22, who earned his place in the EL All-Star Game by batting .296 with 10 homers, 48 RBI and a .351/.485/.835 line in his first 77 games in Double-A. Swihart also has been outstanding behind the plate, developing as a handler of pitchers while throwing out 26 of 49 would-be base stealers, a rate (53 percent) all-but unheard-of in professional baseball.
With Christian Vazquez now sharing Red Sox catching duties with David Ross, Swihart, like Owens, may not be long for Portland.
As Betts can attest, the future these days is arriving fast for the Sea Dogs. Catch ’em in Manchester while you can.
Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @vinsylvia.