Matthew Crownover made history on Saturday night at Northwest Federal Field at Pfitzner Stadium.
The Nationals prospect pitched the first no-hitter in team history, striking out three, walking three and hitting a batter, as Class A Advanced Potomac blanked Lynchburg, 7-0. In his longest start as a Minor Leaguer, he threw a career-high 110 pitches.
Gameday box score
"This was all just very surreal tonight," he said. "It's been a very up-and-down year for me, when it comes to my performance and everything. I feel like I've been pitching pretty well, but I haven't had a lot of breaks go my way."
Since mid-May, Crownover's ERA hovered around 5.00, and he missed nearly three weeks in July after tweaking his neck on a bus ride. He compiled a 1.94 ERA in 10 starts with Potomac a year ago while also making his Double-A debut with Harrisburg, but 2018 hadn't been the building block year he'd hoped for. But Crownover knew he had more in him than the numbers showed.
"I've never been a cocky person, but I've always assured myself that I was good enough to be here with my career," he said. "I haven't always had the best pitches, but I've thought I always had the moxie about me and the guts to pitch and compete at this level.
"This year has been a bit of a gut-check point in my career. Sometimes, when things don't go your way, you have to keep staying professional and just do your best and things will change and come around your way eventually."
Crownover (5-8) set down the first four batters before walking Jose Medina on five pitches with one out in the second inning, but the left-hander mowed down the next 10 Hillcats. Center fielder Nick Banks robbed Anthony Miller of an extra-base hit in the second and Rhett Wiseman snagged a fly ball in right off the bat of Austen Wade for the first out in the third. With Crownover only fanning three batters Saturday, he said plays like that behind him were key in maintaining his momentum moving forward.
"They've been making plays like that all year, but sometimes those bounce out of your glove," he said. "After the third, I sat down inside the locker room and just told myself 'All right, that's nine outs. Let's just go get three more.' One thing I've always tried to focus on growing up was getting a first-pitch strike, getting the first batter out and having a good first inning. That just rang true tonight."
2018 Minor League milestones
In the fourth, the Clemson product caught Indians No. 2 prospect Nolan Jones looking on four pitches before fanning Gavin Collins for his first two strikeouts of the evening.
Crownover cruised through the fifth, despite plunking Jorma Rodriguez with two outs. As he walked back to the dugout, he first began to think about the outing he'd produced and what possibilities lie ahead of him.
"But you just don't ever know. With watching your pitch count in the Minors, guys often don't get to have the opportunitiy to finish these off," he said. "So I just tried to go as long as I could and throw every pitch like it was my last."
He retired his next 11 batters, and hitting coach Luis Ordaz, who was standing in for manager Tripp Keister on Saturday, gave him the nod to step out for the ninth. Crownover took the mound to a standing ovation.
"It gave me goosebumps," he said. "It was like playing high school football. That kind of magnitude with everyone cheering for you."
After walking Dillon Persinger, the left-hander struck out Trenton Brooks on a foul tip to get within one out of the milestone. After a walk to Jones, he said he got a bit nervous -- not because of the gravity of the moment, but because even with two outs, he wasn't sure if he'd be allowed to finish off the milestone.
"I knew they'd eventually have to take me out sooner or later, especially if I walked another guy. Not because of the score, but with my pitch count," he said. "So I just thought 'You know what, I'm just going to leave it all out there and throw whatever I've got, and I can live with that."
With that, after a first-pitch ball, the 25-year-old got Collins to pop up to second baseman Andruw Monasterio on the outfield grass, setting off a celebration at the mound.
From the seventh inning on, Crownover said he reached into the back of the bag and relied almost exclusively on his curveball, a pitch that he felt has lacked consistency or effectiveness. But catcher Jakson Reetz saw the promise in his breaking pitch and called for it more and more later in the outing, even as an opening pitch the second or third time through the lineup.
"I threw it tonight more than I ever have," he said. "I just kinda tried to pitch backwards tonight, and I was getting ahead of guys with it. It's funny how this game works."
Crownover pitched with a lead almost from the outset as Potomac scored twice in the bottom of the first on a passed ball and a throwing error.
Bryan Mejia led Potomac at the plate with a pair of hits, two walks and two runs scored, while Nationals No. 3 prospect Luis Garcia singled twice, drove in one run and scored another. Banks provided some insurance with a two-run single in the eighth.