As early-season efforts go, Hickory Crawdads pitching coach Brad Holman had to be pretty pleased with his staff's performance on Saturday.
Martin Perez, Tyler Tufts and Fabio Castillo combined on the first no-hitter of the Minor League season as the Crawdads blanked the Bowling Green Hot Rods, 5-0, in the first game of a doubleheader at L.P. Frans Stadium.
In the nightcap, three more pitchers crafted a four-hitter as Hickory completed a sweep with a 4-0 whitewash.
"I don't know if the outcome can get any better," said Holman, who's in his first season with the Crawdads. "I can say the individuals can get better, the way they go about their business, pitch execution, game knowledge, situational knowledge.
"But in terms of results ... "
Perez, one of the Texas Rangers' top pitching prospects, struck out six and walked three over four innings before reaching his pitch count.
"He pitches," Holman said. "Despite the fact he's got stuff that's potentially overpowering, he's able to execute his pitches. He had bouts of erraticism, all young pitchers do, but he was never in that much trouble."
Pitching a week after his 18th birthday, the Venezuelan left-hander worked around a one-out walk in the first inning and was unfazed after Michael Sheridan led off the second by reaching on an error. He issued leadoff walks in the third and fourth but never allowed a runner to reach third base.
"He's got a good breaking ball, a changeup and a fastball that's well above-average," Holman said. "At this juncture, the development of the individual supersedes the win. Without risking an elevated pitch count, we're going to let him get his work in."
Tufts, a 22-year-old right-hander out of Indiana University, admitted the no-hitter "kind of snuck up" on him.
"In a seven-inning game, you're not really thinking about that in the fifth inning," he said. "When I pitched the fifth, I looked at the scoreboard and realized I'm pitching the sixth, then there's just the seventh."
Selected in the 32nd round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, Tufts used a two-seam fastball that Holman described as a sinker to retire four of the six batters he faced on ground balls.
"The game plan doesn't change at all [in a no-hitter]," Tufts explained. "Just throw strikes, work it in and out. The defense made plays, made my job easy."
If the contrast between Perez and Tufts was unsettling for the Hot Rods, so was the one between Tufts and Castillo.
"I'm not real sure he even knew there was a no-hitter in place," Holman said. "He just stepped on the mound and pumped strikes. He has a fastball with some angles and there was never any point in time where he was in danger of giving up a hit."
After recording two groundouts, Castillo struck out Michael McCormick to complete the third no-hitter in Crawdads history. Brian Holliday pitched one against Charleston on July 26, 2004, and Wayne Lindemann threw the other against Albany on May 15, 1993.
It was the first no-hitter in the South Atlantic League since Asheville's Bruce Billings blanked Lakewood, 10-0, last July 23.