Whenever Adam Cowart allowed a runner to first base last season, it became easy to predict that a double play groundball would soon follow.
Cowart is still relying on twin killings in 2010, but he has added a new weapon to enhance his ability to escape jams: The strikeout. He struck out seven in 6 1/3 shutout innings as the Wingnuts beat Lincoln 4-0 on Saturday at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
"I'm not changing anything, really," Cowart said. "I'm just going at hitters, trying to get strike one, strike two. The last few games, my slider has been working a lot better for me, so that's probably the reason for the strikeouts."
Last season, Cowart struck out 39 batters in 100 1/3 innings, a rate of 3.5 per nine innings. With 22 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings this season, Cowart's strikeout rate has more than doubled, to 7.1 per nine innings.
Cowart got two double plays Saturday, and four of his strikeouts came with a runner in scoring position.
"We've got a great defense here, and I'm still trying to get groundballs and let them work behind me," Cowart said. "Strikeouts, for me, are just a bonus. They come when they come."
Cowart was given a 1-0 lead in the third thanks to a leadoff home run by Stephen Pearson. He allowed a one-out double in the second and a leadoff double to Roberto Alvarez in the third, but escaped both jams with the help of strikeouts.
A double play helped Cowart avoid trouble in the fourth, and after allowing a leadoff single in the fifth, Cowart had his best stretch of the night, retiring seven straight before being relieved after a one-out walk to Argelis Nunez in the seventh. Cowart threw 84 pitches and the temperature was in the low 90s for most of his outing.
"That's the (Cowart) we know and love, keeping us in ballgames and giving us a chance," Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper said. "We were sitting on one run that whole time and he kept battling and battling. I know he got tired because it was so hot, and that's like throwing 120 (pitches) with (the heat)."
Pearson's first home run came a night after he had three extra-base hits and four RBIs in the series opener, a 14-1 Wingnuts win.
Entering the series with a .200 average and two extra-base hits, Pearson changed his batting stance and cut his hair. While a long-term solution may not be that simple, the last two nights suggest Pearson, who hit .304 last season, is emerging from his slump.
"That's Pierce," Hooper said. "He's a magic mixupper, I guess. He'll be the first one to tell you he was struggling and he needed to get better, especially with guys on base. He's been great for the last couple days. I think he's really bearing down and focused and put some quality at-bats together."
Dustin Pease relieved Cowart in the seventh and walked the first batter he faced to put runners on first and second. After a grounder put both runners in scoring position, Cephas Howard came on to strike out Shawn McGill on three pitches to end the half inning.
Howard is usually the eighth-inning reliever for the Wingnuts and enters the game with no runners on base, so Saturday's situation was somewhat unfamiliar.
"Actually, it's a lot more fun," Howard said. "You get to, I don't want to say be the hero, but you get to be a big part of the game. It's a lot funner coming in with guys on base."
Howard pitched a scoreless eighth before the Wingnuts scored three unearned runs in the eighth, aided by two Lincoln errors and a two-run single by Josh Horn.
Closer Justin Dowdy struck out the side in the ninth and left the bases loaded as the bullpen rebounded from allowing 13 runs in 2 1/3 innings Thursday at Sioux Falls. The relievers allowed Cowart, who throws in the low 80s and relies mostly on movement and location, to earn his second win.
"Cowart is an amazing pitcher," Howard said. "I've seen a lot of guys, I've seen big-league guys — I've never seen a guy who can throw anything where he wants to throw it. He doesn't miss very often. He doesn't miss spots in bullpens and he doesn't miss spots in games. If it's a ball, the umpire missed it."