By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Through his first two starts this season, Hunter Wood was arguably the best pitcher in the Florida State League.
With his low-90s fastball and cement-mixer curveball, the right-hander pitched six scoreless innings in each outing. He allowed just three hits while striking out five in each game, and he only walked three batters total.
Perhaps most importantly, the Charlotte Stone Crabs won both those games.
But the pitcher who took the mound in those two starts wasn’t the same as the one who did in a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Yankees on Monday. Six innings turned to 3 2⁄3, zero runs turned to four and three walks in two outings turned to six walks in one.
Wood threw 62 percent of his pitches for strikes on April 8, and upped that number to 66 percent on Wednesday. On Monday, though, he threw just 36 of his 72 pitches for strikes — 50 percent.
“Coming out of the bullpen, I wasn’t throwing strikes in there, and I carried it onto the field with me,” said Wood, whose six walks doubled his previous career-high. “I had nothing going for me.”
The trouble started immediately for Wood. He walked three of the first four batters he faced in the first inning to load the bases, recording only one out on a ground ball to second.
The first of the Yankees’ two runs that inning came home when Wood didn’t cover first base in time on Austin Aune’s slow roller to Grant Kay. The second scored on a bases-loaded walk issued to Mark Payton, Wood’s fourth of the frame.
The damage could have been considerably worse if not for some good fortune — after Payton’s walk, Santiago Nessy’s ground ball to second base was ruled a double play when Payton illegally took out shortstop Pat Blair with his slide into second base.
Charlotte rallied to tie the game over the next two frames, though. Kay singled to extend his on-base streak to 10 games to start the season, then scored on a double steal and throwing error in the first inning. Nick Ciuffo singled and scored on Jace Conrad’s RBI base hit in the second.
But that was all the offense the Stone Crabs could muster against Tampa starter Ian Clarkin, a 2013 first-round pick who allowed just two runs (one earned) on seven hits while striking out three over five innings pitched.
Meanwhile, Wood’s struggles continued. In the third, Abiatal Avelino led off with a single against the right-hander and scored on a stolen base, balk and wild pitch. In the fourth, after two singles, a walk and a fielder’s choice, Avelino hit the sacrifice fly that extended the Yankees’ lead to 4-2.
“It happens,” Wood said. “You’re going to have bad outings. Hopefully, I can get this one out of the way and turn it around next game.”
It was the last of Tampa’s scoring, but not the last of the trouble for Charlotte pitching. After the team had combined to allow a league-low 20 walks in its first 97 innings, Wood, Jeff Howell and Jordan Harrison combined to walk 10 in nine innings on Monday.
They were able to limit the damage, holding the Yankees to an 0-for-7 mark with runners in scoring position and stranding 11 men on base. But it wasn’t enough to change the tide.
“We’re so used to our starters being dominant for five or six innings, but it’s not going to happen ever night. None of them are going to be that dominant every night,” said manager Michael Johns, whose team had a three-game winning streak halted.
“I thought we did some things well to keep the game in hand and give us a chance to win. But we’ve got to start driving guys in.”
Major League Baseball suspended right-hander Damion Carroll 50 games without pay for a second positive test for drugs of abuse. Carroll, a 2012 sixth-round pick by the Tampa Bay Rays, was replaced on the Stone Crabs roster by Harrison, who pitched 2 2/3 innings of relief on Monday.
YANKEES 4, STONE CRABS 2
HITTER OF THE GAME
Jace Conrad, Stone Crabs: The only Charlotte player with multiple hits, Conrad went 2-for-3 with an RBI single and two stolen bases.
PITCHER OF THE GAME
Jeff Howell, Stone Crabs: The knuckleballer’s outing was far from pretty, but it was effective: In 2 2/3 innings, he allowed a hit and four walks, but no runs.
First: Tampa had a 2-0 lead before it even had its first hit. Charlotte starter Hunter Wood walked three of the first four batters he faced and let two runs score on an error and fourth walk.
THEY SAID IT
Right-hander Hunter Wood: “It went downhill, and it just kept going downhill, and then it kept going downhill even farther. That’s all there is to it. My team played great behind me. I was just trying to stay in there and keep the game close, but I just kept walking guys.”