An @ACCBaseball Trio to Treasure

 

ACC regular season produces three no-hitters

A no-hitter remains one of baseball’s rarest and most coveted feats. But within a span of five weeks during the 2014 season, Atlantic Coast Conference fans almost began to expect the unexpected.

Three no-hit outings – including the 23rd perfect game in NCAA Division I history by Miami senior Javi Salas – highlight the season’s list of memorable moments.

Maryland senior Jake Stinnett started the trend versus Massachusetts on March 1, just three days before Salas delivered his gem against Villanova. Then, on April 4, Virginia sophomore Nathan Kirby opened an ACC road series at Pitt with the season’s third no-hit effort that featured an eye-opening 18 strikeouts.

Each performance garnered its fair share of regional and national attention. All three student-athletes earned ACC Pitcher of the Week honors, and each was recognized as the Pitcher of the Week by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.

The no-hitter by Maryland’s Stinnett was in many ways the classic case of making the most of a second chance. In his previous outing against Bryant on Feb. 22, Stinnett had retired the first 17 batters he faced and carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning. The Vista, Calif., right-hander wound up allowing just one hit in eight innings pitched and finished with a career-high 11 strikeouts in earning the victory.

Stinnett would not be denied when destiny called again seven days later, and he credited his defensive supporting cast for ensuring the no-hitter came to fruition against UMass. Second baseman Brandon Lowe, shortstop Blake Schmit and centerfielder Charlie White all came up with key plays in the field.

“There could have been a couple of hits that game, but the defense picked me up so many times,” said Stinnett. “They do it every game, but especially that game. Other than that, (it was) just throwing strikes and mixing it up, keeping guys off balance.”

Stinnett, who struck out nine and retired the final 11 batters, became the first Maryland pitcher to throw a no-hitter since May of 2008 (Scott Swinson at Delaware) and the first to do so at home since five pitchers combined to shut down Coppin State in March of 2007.

When Miami’s Salas took the mound against Villanova on March 4, he did so with added incentive. The Hurricanes were coming off a series loss to second-ranked rival Florida State and, with a 5-5 record through 10 games, looked to jump start their season.

“That’s the only reason I showed up … to get our team back on track,” Salas said. “I didn't care how it happened or what the score was. We really needed to win.”

Salas, a hometown product of Coral Gables, Fla., left no room for doubt as he threw just 113 pitches while recording 27 consecutive outs. The Hurricanes backed him with 17 runs, but one would have sufficed on Salas’ night of perfection.

He finished the game with six strikeouts, including a three-pitch quick fix for the game’s final out that send the crowd of 2,435 at Mark Light Field into frenzy.

“In that last inning, I was trying to keep my adrenaline down,” Salas said. “The fans were getting up, and I couldn't believe it.”

Salas sensed he was working on something special after the sixth inning, when his teammates began adhering to one of baseball’s oldest superstitions.

“I got back in the dugout, and I was kind of isolated and no one was talking to me," he said. “That's when I realized what I had going. I had a couple of 3-1 counts there that I was hoping I didn't walk a guy. I had to keep my approach and stay aggressive.”

Salas crafted the second perfect game in Miami baseball history, the first since the Hurricanes joined the ACC and the program’s first since March of 1987 (Kevin Sheary). He joined Maryland’s Dick Reitz (1959) and Virginia’s Will Roberts (2011) as one of only three ACC pitchers in an elite group.

“He's our captain, one of our hardest workers and a leader by example,” Miami coach Jim Morris said. “He's a pre-law student. He's everything. He is a perfect student-athlete.”

As for Salas’ perfect game sparking a turnaround for his team, what has since transpired says it best. Keyed by a 14-game winning streak during a stretch that spanned late March and a good part of April, the Hurricanes entered the third week of May with the best conference record among ACC teams and a No. 6 national ranking.

The no-hit, 18-strikeout showing by Virginia’s Kirby at Pitt was all the more remarkable given that the Midlothian, Va., left-hander had previously worked no more than 6 2/3 innings in any single outing.

“It felt weird," Kirby said.  "I got a little bit of a second wind at the end. That's all I could think about in the sixth inning, was getting through the seventh because that's been my demon all year long. It was definitely surreal.”

Kirby’s no-hitter was the first by a Virginia pitcher since Roberts’ perfect game in 2011 and the fifth by a Cavalier over the last 50 years.

“It's kind of cliché, but it was a blur,” Kirby said. “It kind of slowed down there at the end of the game … It was one of those nights where the umpire and I were on the same page. I got a couple of close calls. Everything was working. I wanted to let the hitters hit it and let our defense play.”

Virginia’s fielders – notably third baseman John La Prise and shortstop Dan Pinero – made their plays when given the opportunity. But their chances were limited on a night Kirby came within one strikeout of the school record of 19 set by Harry Thomas against Clemson in 1974, and the ACC record shared by Thomas and two others.

“The velocity on his fastball was really overpowering,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said of Kirby. “He had a great fastball with location and he was working ahead in the count. He had that devastating curveball that he could throw with two strikes underneath those right-handed hitters. It was just special.”

Other notable milestones were accomplished by ACC student-athletes and teams over the course of the 2014 regular season. NC State junior Carlos Rodon became just the fourth pitcher in ACC history to pass the 400 career strikeouts threshold, and Wolfpack junior shortstop Trea Turner eclipsed the 100-stolen base mark for his career and moved into the top five all-time among ACC players in that category. An ACC team held the No. 1 spot in the national rankings of at least one major poll throughout the year.

They joined Stinnett, Salas and Kirby in setting a high standard. Look for more special games and more memorable moments during this week’s ACC Baseball Championship, as 10 teams vie for a league title at Greensboro’s NewBridge Bank Park.