Thursday, April 30, 2009

4 Consecutive No Hit Games

RT Staff note: Patrick Schuster lost his bid for 5 consecutive no hit games, but 4 no-no's is a great accomplishment.

NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. — How long will Patrick Schuster’s luck last? It is a question his mother, Sharon, has worried about since well before Schuster, a senior at Mitchell High School near Tampa, pitched the first of his four consecutive no-hitters on April 3.

There is so much that is out of the left-handed Schuster’s control, even though he has a despot’s command of his pitches. It is never far from his mind that on any given day — maybe even Tuesday, when the Mitchell Mustangs open the 6A playoffs — an opponent, in desperation, can poke his aluminum bat at one of Schuster’s 90-mile-an-hour fastballs and snap the streak with a ping heard ’round Pasco County.

Schuster, 18, has struck out 60 during his state-record string of no-hitters. In addition to his fastball, he has a nasty slider and curve, each of which he trusts enough to throw on 3-2 counts.

With his gangly frame and gossamer goatee, Schuster calls to mind the Shaggy character in the “Scooby-Doo” cartoons. He turns into a pit bull on the mound, chasing hitters off the plate like his favorite major leaguer, the Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Scott Kazmir, whose aggressiveness Schuster admires.

Schuster, who did not throw a no-hitter in his first three years of high school, is two shy of the national prep record of six consecutive no-hitters set by Chris Taranto in Mississippi in 1961 and equaled by Tom Engle in Ohio in 1989.

“I don’t really focus on it,” Schuster said, referring to the streak. “I look at it as getting the win for my team.” He paused. “But I can’t lie. It’s going to be on my mind Tuesday.”

In Florida, April is when spring football blooms, but Schuster, who has signed a scholarship to play at Florida, has managed to embed high school baseball into people’s consciousness. His feats for the 22-3 Mustangs have been splashed across the front pages of the local newspapers.

Last week, during Mitchell High’s regular-season finale at Zephyrhills, Schuster’s mother and his father, Roger, heard from one of the other team parents that someone traveling through Scotland had read about Schuster’s fourth no-hitter in a paper there. His last start attracted two dozen major league scouts, TV crews and an estimated crowd of 1,000, which Roger guessed was about 900 more than attended the home opener. In opposing dugouts, the players have tried to distract Schuster by chanting, “Hey, ESPN boy!”

As she settled into her lawn chair and wrapped herself in a homemade blanket, Sharon said, “Roger and I can’t get our heads around it.”

Her husband, who was pacing behind her, as he often does during games, said, “The other day I asked Patrick if all of the attention was making him nervous and he told me, ‘When I’m out there on the mound, it’s the most comfortable place in the world.’ ”

The spotlight shining on Schuster’s senior season has lifted some of the darkness that descended on the family during his older brother Shane’s senior year. In November of that year, Shane Schuster was found to have a juvenile form of bone cancer. He died four years later, in 2002, when Patrick was 11.

“This is the time in Shane’s life when he was sick,” Sharon said. She added: “November was really stressful. It just brought back all the memories.”

In an interview last week at his school, Schuster, who has an older sister, grew misty-eyed when he talked about Shane. “I didn’t understand at the age I was what was happening,” he said, adding, “I think his death brought my family a lot closer.”

To honor him, Schuster has written Shane’s initials, STS, on the back of his cleats, and 9/21, the date of his death. He used to wear Shane’s Little League All-Star T-shirt under his game jersey, but it became so tattered and so tight on his sprouting 6-foot-2 frame that his mother finally confiscated it last summer. Sharon said, “We had to about peel it off him.”

Schuster was 4 when Roger introduced him to baseball. Not realizing his son was left-handed, his father taught him how to hit right-handed, and that is how Schuster still bats. During his brother’s illness, Schuster remembers being disappointed that he never had both his parents in the stands for his games. They would trade off, with one ferrying Schuster to the ballpark while the other, usually Sharon, stayed at the hospital with Shane.

“After Shane’s death, I think baseball was part of the healing process,” Sharon said. “After that, we said we’d never miss another game.”

They were there for Schuster’s first start of the season, when he was pulled from the game after six no-hit innings. He and Scot Wilcox, the Mustangs’ coach, had agreed on an 85-pitch limit. “I was sitting in the dugout after he took me out thinking, That was such a bad idea,” Schuster said with a laugh. He accepted the restriction, he said, “because I averaged about 110 pitches a game last year, and scouts were getting scared when they saw that.”

His pitch total was 109 in his last outing. He talks as if a hurricane warning couldn’t budge him from the mound now. “This team has a chance to do something really special,” he explained.

Sharon has worn the same black T-shirt during each of Schuster’s no-hitters. She is too superstitious to change her wardrobe. Schuster’s talisman is his facial hair. He has vowed not to shave until the streak is over. Stroking his goatee, he said, “I hate it.”

Schuster is also not thrilled about the part-time job his mother insisted he find after he received a speeding ticket on his way to a Florida football game. He works weekends at the Turtle Cove Marina, which requires him to rise at 7 a.m. “I think she wanted me to experience the value of a dollar,” Schuster said. “We all believe I’m never going to have a real job because I’m going to be playing baseball.”
“Baseball,” he said, “has never felt like work.”

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