FREDERICK, Md. -- The loss of a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning took very little of the luster off an absolute gem of a win for Chorye Spoone.
The 21-year-old right-hander tossed a one-hitter Thursday as the Frederick Keys beat the Wilmington Blue Rocks, 3-1, to complete a two-game sweep in the Carolina League Northern Division Finals.
One out away from history, Spoone gave up a solo home run to Carolina League All-Star Jose Duarte before retiring Marc Maddox on a groundout to end the game -- and the Blue Rocks' season.
"We [catcher Zach Dillon and I] were both thinking curveball at first, but I felt that if I was going to get beat in a no-hitter it should be on a fastball," said Spoone, who was 10-9 with a 3.26 ERA during the regular season. "I'd never live it down if I lost a no-hitter on a curveball. So I threw the fastball but left it a little bit up."
The victory wrapped up a third consecutive trip to the championship series for the Keys, who wait to find out who they will host when the best-of-5 Finals begin Saturday at Harry Grove Stadium. The Kinston Indians knotted the Southern Division Finals at 1-1 with a dramatic 1-0 victory over the Salem Avalanche.
Sometimes a potential no-hitter features its share of hard-hit "at-'em" balls or four-star acrobatic defensive plays. But Spoone was in total command from the moment he got Duarte to ground out on his first pitch of the game and had virtually no trouble right up to the moment that Duarte broke up the no-hitter.
The Blue Rocks did not hit a ball out of the infield until the eighth, unless you count a popout to shortstop Blake Davis that was caught on the very edge of the outfield grass or when the Rocks got their first baserunner in the fifth as Brian McFall reached on third baseman Ryan Finan's error.
Although Spoone is, by his own admission, a ground-ball pitcher, he struck out nine, including five in a row in the second and third innings to go with 14 ground-ball outs.
"He had a dynamite fastball with some sink and a dynamite breaking ball and he made great pitches when he had to," Keys manager Tommy Thompson raved. "The magnitude of this performance in the playoffs is unbelievable. This was a great way to win the Northern Division."
While, in accordance with baseball superstition, none of Spoone's teammates said the magic word "no-hitter" in the dugout, he could tell they were aware of the situation and doing whatever they could to keep the mojo or karma or whatever it was going.
"Every time we came back to the dugout they kept saying 'Same seats, same seats,'" he said. "So I knew that's what they meant."
Coming into the night with a 1-0 lead in the best-of-3 series, thanks to a 9-2 road victory on Wednesday, the Keys had to be happy to send Spoone to the mound in a potential clincher. Aside from having the hot hand and a great season behind him, he's also been the most successful Frederick pitcher against the Blue Rocks with a 2.57 ERA in four games.
But his mound opponent was no slouch. Julio Cesar Pimentel was a Carolina League All-Star, going 12-4 with a 2.65 ERA, and had allowed two earned runs or fewer in 11 of his previous 13 games. Plus, he'd dominated the Keys this season to the tune of an 0.92 ERA in four games.
And while Spoone was in complete command, Pimentel was cruising until he faltered just enough in the fourth to let the Keys get on the board. Cleanup hitter Dillon led off with a single to left field and came home on a home run to right by Finan, the Carolina League All-Star third baseman.
With that slim lead, the Keys squandered one scoring opportunity in the sixth as they loaded the bases with no outs but were unable to bring across an insurance run. In many cases, that sort of situation could come back to haunt a team. But somehow, with Spoone locked in, it didn't seem quite as ominous.
Frederick got that insurance run an inning later as Kennard Jones led off with a double to left field and scored on Davis' triple into the right-field corner. That made it 3-0 and signaled the end of the night for Pimentel.
Spoone, from nearby Pasadena, Md., had his usual cheering section of more than 30 family members -- including his Frederick host family -- here to root him on. And there was one more who was there in spirit.
His brother, C.J., was deployed to Iraq with his Army unit Tuesday but was able to put through a call to the Keys' offices on Thursday to wish his brother good luck.
NOTES: With an off day as they await their opponent in the finals, the Keys were able to set their rotation for the best-of-5 series with everyone able to go on complete rest. David Hernandez, who struck out a Minor League season-high 18 batters in his last regular-season start, will take the mound at home for Saturday's series opener. If the series goes the distance, Spoone would get the call in Game 5, though he could be available in Game 4 if a small blister Brad Bergesen is sporting on his finger has not healed sufficiently.
While the official records dating back to the Carolina League's inception in 1945 are spotty, had Spoone completed the no-hitter it is believed it would have been the first in league playoff history.
Although the Keys are two-time defending Northern Division champions, they had won the title just once before since their inception in 1989 -- in 1990, when they captured the Carolina League title. They fell in the divisional series four other times, including 1993 when Wilmington, in its first season, swept Frederick.
Several members of the Baltimore Orioles front office were in attendance for Spoone's masterpiece, including general manager Jim Duquette. Now the Keys just have to hope that after that performance, the Orioles don't spirit their ace off to the big leagues before the Carolina League finals are over.