After a ‘pinch-me moment’ no-hitter, what’s next for Ronel Blanco?

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HOUSTON — One of baseball’s best pitching prospects secured two outs, felt something in his oblique and sent Bill Murphy scrambling. Murphy summoned a reliever he’d only just met and never heard much about, another inexpensive international lottery ticket in an organization littered with them.

Ronel Blanco bounded in from the bullpen. Two years earlier, in 2016, he had signed for $5,000 and, due to his age, the Houston Astros had hoped he would advance quickly through their farm system. Blanco made 20 appearances at High A before Houston promoted him onto Murphy’s pitching staff at Double-A Corpus Christi in 2018.

On July 5, 2018, Murphy handed Blanco the baseball in relief of an injured Forrest Whitley, once hailed as Houston’s next pitching wunderkind. Blanco, a 24-year-old making his Double-A debut, bullied the Arkansas Travelers across four scoreless innings, striking out eight and surrendering no hits.

No chain of events better epitomizes the Astros’ player development pipeline: a premier prospect overshadowed by one everyone else overlooked.

Few will forget Blanco any time soon. Monday’s no-hitter made him a household name and highlighted his journey from carwash employee to changeup maestro.

“It’s still a pinch-me moment,” said Murphy, now one of the Astros’ two major-league pitching coaches.

“That’s what brought him to this point — the guy just continues to work so hard every single day. He’s never listened to one person say, ‘You can’t do this or you can’t do that.’ The perseverance is incredible.”

Blanco mastered the minor leagues and became a Dominican winter ball legend, but struggled to find any footing in the major leagues. Now, his spot in Astros lore is secured even if he never throws another big league pitch.

Whether Blanco is just a one-start wonder or something more substantial will be answered across the next few weeks, a span that could determine whether he sticks in the major-league rotation.

March and April are ripe for small sample overreactions, so Monday’s magnificence should not outweigh what Blanco has been at the major-league level. He entered Monday’s start with a 4.78 ERA in 58 1/3 big league innings, including a 4.74 mark in seven starts.

“Blanco has the repertoire to do this every time he goes out there,” manager Joe Espada said on Tuesday. “He added that changeup. He can go deep into games because he throws strikes. He’s efficient. We expect him to continue to provide some good outings for us moving forward.”

Justin Verlander is nearing a minor-league rehab assignment, during which he’s expected to make at least two starts. Until he is ready to return, Blanco is guaranteed to remain in the Astros’ rotation. His next start should come during the team’s weekend series in Arlington, Texas, against the defending World Series champion Texas Rangers.

Even after Verlander is activated, Blanco could position himself as the team’s sixth starter, should the team choose to expand its rotation. During spring training, both Espada and general manager Dana Brown sounded bullish on the idea. After a scheduled off day on Thursday, Houston will play 16 games in 17 days, a stretch that could be conducive to a six-man setup.

Performance will do more to determine Blanco’s future than any calendar or other set of circumstances. Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Hunter Brown aren’t coming out of the rotation.

Perhaps if Blanco out-performs J.P. France, Houston will have a choice to make, but a more realistic situation involves keeping Blanco stretched out and finding ways to give him spot starts — presuming, of course, he proves capable of remaining a starter.

Until last season, Blanco spent most of his minor-league career as a traditional reliever with a two-pitch arsenal: a four-seam fastball and a slider. Some in the organization worried whether he could navigate a lineup more than once with such a small arsenal. Finding and executing a third pitch is paramount. Monday proved why.

Last season, Blanco threw his changeup just 11.4 percent of the time in the minor leagues. It comprised just nine percent of his arsenal across his brief big-league tenure. On Monday, he threw the pitch more than anything else in his arsenal. It guided him to history.

During his yearly trip to the Dominican Republic this winter, Murphy introduced adjustments to Blanco’s changeup grip, moving his fingers closer together to make Blanco more comfortable using a pitch he seldom threw.

The pitch drew rave reviews throughout spring training, but basing anything on Grapefruit League performance can be pointless. Toronto’s hitters may say otherwise. They struck out seven times against the changeup while whiffing 10 times on the 24 swings they took against it. Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said it appeared Blanco threw “a changeup and a split, two different pitches.”

“It’s not like a split, it’s just a normal changeup. Nothing crazy,” Murphy said. “The movement of it last night was just crazy. Hopefully it shows up the next outing. But it’s nothing crazy or awe-inspiring. He’s used it in the past and we just wanted it to be more consistent. Yesterday, it was. We just want him to think four-seam with it, throw it and have confidence.”

Blanco threw 905 pitches in the major leagues last season. Only 81 were changeups. On Monday night, Blanco threw 36 of them. Twenty-five went to right-handed hitters, a sign of how confident Blanco and catcher Yainer Diaz felt with the pitch. For reference, righties saw just 13 changeups from Blanco last season.

“It seemed like he was just in the zone so much more yesterday as compared to previously,” Murphy said. “That’s extremely beneficial. He had a chance to throw nine innings under 100 pitches, which in today’s game is so difficult to do. I think that’s part of it as well, being able to attack the strike zone and complement the third pitch.”

Blanco threw 70 percent of his pitches for strikes on Monday, a number he isn’t likely to replicate any time soon. He walked 4.9 batters per nine innings at the major-league level across 2022 and 2023 while surrendering 8.8 hits per nine.

The confidence and adrenaline present Monday are reserved only for remarkable nights. Blanco authored one, but now must act as if it isn’t an anomaly.

“This guy has literally willed himself to last night and I think all the work that he’s done culminated yesterday,” Murphy said. “He was awesome (in Dominican winter ball) and I think that’s actually set him up to be successful in the big leagues and just gaining confidence, trusting in his ability has brought him to this point and we expect that he’s going to be good for us. We fully believe that.”

(Photo of Ronel Blanco: Troy Taormina / USA Today)

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