By Tim Casey
TRENTON, N.J. -- At 10:45 p.m. on Wednesday, the Portland Sea Dogs remained in the visiting clubhouse at Arm & Hammer Park, eating, talking, listening to music, showering and preparing for the 400-mile trip home to Maine. They didn't seem ready to leave anytime soon.
Henry Owens was celebrating Portland's 9-2 victory over the Trenton Thunder with his Double-A teammates, but he was also looking forward to sleeping on the long bus ride. If he continues pitching the way he has so far this season, though, Owens won't have to worry too much longer about dealing with the less-than-glamorous life of a minor leaguer.
Six days after throwing a rain-shortened, six-inning no-hitter in his season debut, Owens was nearly as impressive on Wednesday. He allowed no runs and six hits (five singles and a double) in 6 2/3 innings. He threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 25 batters he faced, struck out nine players (eight swinging) and didn't walk anyone. Of his 83 pitches, 59 were strikes, including 18 swings and misses.
Owens, a 6-foot 6-inch lefthander who turns 22 in July, has more than justified the hype bestowed upon him in recent months. Baseball America, MLB.com and ESPN.com rank Owens among the top 50 prospects in baseball and second in the Red Sox's system behind Xander Bogaerts, the 21-year-old shortstop who's now starting for Boston.
Still, as with all of their young pitchers, the Red Sox are being careful with Owens. For now, he has an 85-to-90 pitch limit per start, which will increase as the season progresses. Red Sox director of player of development Ben Crockett said there is no "hard target" on the number of innings Owens will throw this year, although it likely won't be significantly more than the 135 innings he threw in 2013. There is no timetable for a potential call-up to Triple-A Pawtucket or Boston yet, either.
"On the development side, we keep our goals more short-term, particularly with regards to the progression," Crockett said on Wednesday night before the game. "We think Henry has a chance to be a really successful major league starting pitcher for us. He's obviously put himself in a pretty good place thus far and started off this season well here in Portland, but we wouldn't want to get ahead of ourselves to start putting expectations on when he needs to get there and when he should get there."
For Owens to succeed in the higher levels, Portland pitching coach Bob Kipper said he needs to continue improving his curveball and having command of his fastball, which he normally throws between 90 and 92 miles per hour. Crockett is particularly impressed with Owens's changeup, which usually travels around 80 miles per hour.
"One of the biggest, most important parts of the changeup is selling it as if it's your fastball," Crockett said. "He maintains tremendous arm speed. He maintains the same delivery that he has with his fastball. Hitters tell the story there with the swings that they take at it."
During his no-hitter last Thursday night, Owens only threw fastballs and changeups in the first four innings. He was prepared to throw a curveball in the fifth inning and planned on shaking off catcher Blake Swihart if he called another pitch. Instead, Swihart immediately put down two fingers, signifying a curveball. Swihart, who first caught Owens when they were teammates on the U.S. junior national team as 18-year-olds, knew exactly what Owens wanted.
"I just started laughing in my head like, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Owens said. "He's got a good feel."
The two have worked well together since they both joined the organization three years ago. In the 2011 draft, the Red Sox selected Swihart and Owens with the 26th and 36th overall picks, respectively. Owens was surprised when then-Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein called because no team official visited his home before the draft.
Since reneging on a commitment to the University of Miami and agreeing to a $1.55 million signing bonus in August 2011, Owens has gained nearly 40 pounds. He is still only 215 pounds, but Crockett said Owens's work in the weight room has helped him maintain his delivery and remain durable throughout a long season. In 22 starts for low-Class A Greenville (S.C.) in 2012, he had a 4.87 ERA, 130 strikeouts and 47 walks in 101 2/3 innings. He was even better last year with high-Class A Salem (Va.), striking out 123 and walking 53 in 104 2/3 innings. During a stretch in July, he went 19 1/3 innings without allowing a hit.
"I felt like I was overmatching the opponents I was facing," Owens said. "In a sense, I felt like I shouldn't have been there. I was progressing, but it was at a slower pace. I felt like if I was in Double-A, even if it meant that I had to struggle a couple outings, that I would progress more as a pitcher."
On the morning of Aug. 1, then-Salem manager Billy McMillon told Owens he had been promoted to the Sea Dogs. Two nights later in his Double-A debut, Owens had a career-high 11 strikeouts and two walks in six scoreless innings. He made six starts for Portland, compiling a 1.78 ERA with 46 strikeouts and 15 walks in 30 1/3 innings.
When the season ended, he returned home to Huntington Beach, California, where he grew up rooting for the Los Angeles Angels and attending numerous games. Owens was asked if he had a favorite Angels' pitcher.
"Yes, I did," he said.
Was it Red Sox starter John Lackey, who pitched for the Angels from 2002 to 2009? Owens smiled. He was polite but coy.
"I don't want to say," he said, laughing. "I'm going to save that one for later."
Later this year or next year, Owens could possibly join Lackey in Boston, but he's not getting ahead of himself. He had a glimpse of major league life recently when he was invited to the Red Sox's spring training camp. Before getting reassigned to the minor leagues on March 13, the normally outgoing Owens spent most of the time as an observer, sitting in on the pitchers' meetings and watching their weightlifting routines, side sessions and interactions with teammates. It was a valuable experience, although he's not complaining about where he is now, either.
"I feel like being labeled as a prospect just brings upon expectations," Owens said. "Until those expectations are met, I'm still a 21-year-old lefthander from Huntington Beach, California. That's how I look at it right now. I'm just a Sea Dog."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.