The Kannapolis Pipeline: Varnell the latest fascinating pitcher called up, but loses in Winston-Salem debut

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Taylor Varnell’s High-A debut against the Fayetteville Woodpeckers was baserunner-heavy but otherwise smooth until the very last pitch he threw, his 100th, which turned into a triple-plus-error and scored three runs for the loss. It’s strange to say for a four-run, five-walk outing over four and two-thirds innings, but this was actually a pretty good start, and Varnell flashed enough movement on his offspeed pitches to keep things interesting the entire time.

Varnell, a lefty, was a late-round pick in 2018; he absolutely dominated the AZL that year (10 ER in 45.2 IP, 10 BB, 61 K), and didn't struggle too much over 20 starts with Kannapolis this season. He does not give up home runs (seven total allowed over 151.2 professional innings) and, normally, he doesn’t walk too many guys; coming into today’s game, three free passes were the most he had allowed in one start. His BB/9 on the season (106 innings) was 2.89.

Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was trying to figure out a new league’s home plate umpiring style, maybe it was any of a million other factors, but that control was not on display on Sunday afternoon. Varnell blew past his season-high of three walks and issued five, two of those on four pitches and one on five. 

Of the six hits he allowed, two were doubles, both ground-rule, both to Woodpecker Corey Julks. One was the aforementioned triple, which capped off a chain of events that started, in fact, with two quick outs to start the fifth inning. Julks then did his thing to left center field, where his second double bounced out of play and then advanced to third on Varnell’s second wild pitch of the day, which doubled as ball four for the batter. Sitting at 98 pitches, with runners on the corners and two outs, Varnell was allowed to face one final batter in Scott Schreiber. On the second pitch of the at-bat, Schreiber sent one deep to center field, past Steele Walker’s outstretched glove, bouncing off the wall and eventually corralled as Schreiber was well on his way to third. Tate Blackman cut off the throw from the outfield and fired to third, and although it was close timing-wise, it wasn’t physically and skipped by Yeyson Yrizarri into no-man’s-land foul territory. Schreiber dashed home safely, and there aren’t many worse ways to wrap up an outing than by giving up three runs on the last pitch thrown to give up the lead.

The good news is there’s no need at this point to rend your clothing and tear out your hair. The end result came out looking pretty ugly, but in person, Varnell impressed and intrigued. His fastball ranged from 90 to 96 mph, but he lived and died by his breaking stuff, which he threw more frequently and more interestingly. His curveball has such a sharp break that it’s visible from the press box, and his changeup relentlessly throws batters off; it seemed like he was either throwing in the 90s or in the 70-73 mph range, with no in-between. Yes, there were a lot of walks, but Varnell was also just absolutely filling the strike zone with junk, dropping the curve in there without mercy, making Fayetteville batters look like they’d never swung a bat before. There are only about three weeks left of the season, so Varnell will have a limited number of starts at the level, but they’ll all be ones to pay attention to.

The bullpen had a lot of the game to handle and handle it they did. Andrew Perez wrapped up Varnell’s fifth without a problem, and cruised through two more innings, allowing one hit and one walk, striking out four and giving up zero runs. Caleb Frare, making his way back through the Sox system as he rehabs from a mysteriously vague injury, added one perfect inning, and Jacob Lindgren issued his first walk in 10 Dash innings but was helped by a double play and emerged unscathed.

The Dash have been struggling offensively as a team for a while now, and today was no different, as they managed only six hits (although they did walk four times). They had the bases loaded in the third with nobody out — Evan Skoug doubled, Yeyson Yrizarri singled, and Walker walked — but they only scored one run, coming on a Johan Cruz sacrifice fly. They scored their second and final run in the fourth, Mitch Roman singling with one out, advancing to third on Tate Blackman’s groundout, then scoring on Skoug’s infield single to first. Craig Dedelow, who hit his league-leading eighth triple yesterday, hit his league-leading ninth triple today but did not score. Andrew Vaughn walked twice but went hitless.

The team returns on Friday at 7 pm for another weekend homestand, their penultimate of the season.

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