It’s late in the season and again, Abdiel Saldana has found his comfort zone.
It hasn’t moved, remaining 60 feet, 6 inches away from home plate but the Quad-Cities pitcher has made the mound his space.
“I am feeling very comfortable when I am on the mound. I’m comfortable with the defense behind me, I’m comfortable with Chuckie (Robinson), our catcher,’’ the River Bandits right hander said. “Right now when I am out there, I feel like I am in control. I can relax and play my game.’’
Saldana has been playing that game well, showing growth in his change-up and slider which have made him one of the more effective pitchers in the Midwest League during the second half of the season.
Quad-Cities pitching coach Drew French has seen it all before.
He worked with Saldana as the pitching coach at short-season Tri-City a year ago, where a slow start was followed by a strong finish.
That pattern has repeated itself this season.
“From the start of last season to now, Abdiel has probably shown as much improvement as any pitcher in our organization,’’ French said. “He’s learning his craft and developing a consistency in his work. That growth will only benefit him as he moves forward.’’
French sees carrying that consistency over from one season to the next as an offseason priority for the 21-year-old native of David, Panama.
“I came to spring training expecting to see the same pitcher I was watching late last season, but it has taken some time to get back there,’’ French said. “He’s there and beyond now, but making sure he is as good or better next spring compared to where he is now is something we have to figure out.’’
Saldana has allowed more than one earned run just twice in the last 18 of his 25 outings for the River Bandits and is 3-1 during the second half of the season.
He was named by the Astros organization as its minor league pitcher of the week last week after striking out eight batters in four walk-free innings of work against Kane County.
French said the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Saldana benefits from a commitment in the weight room and the ability to use his size to his advantage.
“He’s a physically strong kid, probably one of the strongest on our roster and at his height, he is able to play a little lower to the ground,’’ French said. “There is a lot of movement with his body and that helps him deliver with some consistency.’’
Saldana has filled both starting and relief roles for Quad-Cities.
His level of success in his relief appearances has led to more starting opportunities for Saldana, who has allowed 1.07 walks and hits per inning as a starter.
“He’s embraced that role,’’ Quad-Cities manager Russ Steinhorn said. “His first start, he was allowed 80, 90 pitches and he got seven innings out it. He had a really efficient starting debut and it seems like he has gotten better nearly every time out.’’
Saldana likes the routine that accompanies being in the starting rotation and the space he has to work within each of those starts.
“I can make more adjustments when I start than when I pitch a couple of innings out of the bullpen,’’ Saldana said. “If I have one bad inning when I start, there is time to adjust.’’
The fourth inning of the River Bandits’ 6-5 win over Beloit on Sunday is an example.
The Snappers didn’t hit Saldana hard, but did score three runs on four hits after Quad-Cities scored five times in the bottom of the third.
Saldana responded with two shutout innings of work before his start ended with a 1-2-3 sixth inning.
“When that happens, when you give up a couple hits like that, you have to keep working and in the last two innings, I could feel my confidence going up again,’’ Saldana said. “It was the good way to finish.’’
That ability and that understanding has helped Saldana build from one outing to the next this season, leading to growth in his game.
“I feel like I have improved. I am competing the way I want to and have the results I want to have,’’ he said. “It is a good place to be right now as I keep working to get better.’’