Not many teams -- not many pitchers, to be specific -- have been able to figure out the Hagerstown Suns this season. Entering Sunday, the Nationals' Class A affiliate boasted a .756 winning percentage that was easily the best in affiliated baseball.
And yet, Jake Junis seems to have the inside track on the Minor Leagues' hottest team.
The Royals prospect pitched eight hitless innings, striking out six and walking one, in Lexington's 1-0 blanking of Hagerstown at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. The no-hit bid ended with one out in the ninth when Isaac Ballou doubled off reliever Matt Alvarez.
In two starts against the Suns, Junis is 2-0 with a 2.57 ERA and 14 strikeouts over 14 innings.
"You know guys have certain tendencies, and they're a really good fastball-hitting team; they're a good team, period, actually," he said. "I wanted to get the fastball going early on and I started using the changeup more and more. Something just clicked, man, and together with my catcher [Frank Schwindel], we were able to get it done."
Junis (5-2) walked Craig Manuel in the first inning and hit the Suns catcher in the fourth, but those were the only black marks on his otherwise clean pitching line. He retired his final 14 batters, with shortstop Humberto Arteaga ranging to steal a potential hit from Brennan Middleton to close out the eighth.
"He saved my butt a couple of times," Junis joked.
With his pitch count at 88, the Illinois native wanted a chance to close out the gem, but he saw the writing on the wall.
"Oh, man, that's a pitcher's dream to finish out a no-hitter," he said. "I definitely wanted to finish it out, that would have been great. But there are rules with pitch counts, and you can't be too upset about it.
"I actually hit 88 [over eight innings on May 8 against Asheville] and wanted to get the complete game then, too, but they took me out. So once I heard the No. 88 in terms of my pitch count, I knew I wasn't coming back."
Instead, Junis was left to watch the ninth from the Legends dugout when Alvarez struck out Rafael Bautista before serving up the double to Ballou. The reliever put runners on the corners with two outs but fanned Carlos Lopez to close out the Legends' third shutout of the season.
"I don't know, I was kind of split when it happened," Junis said of the Suns' first hit. "I just kept my head down, took a deep breath because I was so on edge. But [Ballou], he's a really good hitter. It happens. We got the win, and that's important. [Alvarez] shut it down and we're all happy about a 1-0 win."
As for Junis, who last threw a no-hitter as a senior at Rock Falls High School, Sunday was his second scoreless outing of the season. He lowered his ERA to 2.66 ERA and has 41 strikeouts against nine walks in nine starts (50 2/3 innings) during his first stop in a full-season league. The 2011 29th-rounder compiled a 7.39 ERA in 13 starts at Rookie-level Idaho Falls last summer but thought he was worthy of a move to the South Atlantic League in 2014. So far, he's been right.
"I haven't had too many starts here yet, but I was excited to break camp with the guys here in Lexington," he said. "I felt I was ready to move up and take on a new level, and I've been excited to prove that here."
Mauricio Ramos singled in Elier Hernandez with the game's only run in the second inning.