After spending the beginning of the season in the bullpen, Austin Sexton is filling a role in the Class A Peoria rotation. In his second turn, he was one strong breeze away from perfection.
The Cardinals prospect allowed one baserunner over seven innings on Saturday and the Chiefs took a no-hitter into the ninth en route to a 7-0 blanking of Clinton at Dozer Park. Sexton recorded a career-high 10 strikeouts and did not walk a batter in the longest outing of his professional career.
Brady Bowen kept he no-hitter intact in the eighth, but Dewin Perez surrendered a one-out single in the ninth as Peoria fell two outs shy of a no-hitter for the second time this season.
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"I think today the big thing was my slider. It was sharp and it was much harder than usual," the 22-year-old said. "[Catcher Andrew Knizner] did a good job of picking out the pitches and the defense played really well behind me and everything just fell into place."
In 17 professional outings, including eight starts, Sexton had never gone more than four innings while striking out no more than four in a single appearance. Over 29 innings this season, including a pair of three-inning relief outings with Class A Advanced Palm Beach, the Alabama native has an 0.78 ERA with 30 strikeouts.
"It felt good to get an outing like that under my belt," Sexton said. "I enjoyed my time in the 'pen and if that's what they decide to do then that's fine and I'll do that. But just eating up those meaningful innings and continuously competing, it felt really good and it felt really comfortable."
The 18th-round pick in last year's Draft was dealing with biceps tendinitis after six starts last season and spent some extra time in extended spring training to build his strength.
"I'm still working on bringing my pitch count up and I think the goal was 80 pitches tonight and 81 was what I finished with," Sexton said. "It's familiar territory -- I've been a starter since middle school, so it really wasn't anything uncomfortable."
His performance on Saturday was one fumbled fly ball away from perfection as the right-hander retired the first 14 batters before left fielder Vince Jackson mishandled a popup off the bat of Nick Zammarelli in the fifth.
"[Zammarelli] sliced it and the wind was pushing it another way, so I thought it was going foul and our left fielder did, too," Sexton said. "He saved my butt earlier in the game on a play he had to reach over his shoulder and make a good play on, so no harm done. Just a difficult spinning ball right there."
Sexton struck out the side in the fourth and after recording two punchouts in both the second and third innings. He credited the changeup he's used since his days at Mississippi State to put away lefties and an improving feel for his breaking pitches to be effective against righties.
"Coming out of the bullpen early on has really helped me work on those things, and tonight it was really just about slider and curveball grips," Sexton said. "Today, what helped me -- which I struggled a bit with in the past -- was finding a consistent curveball or slider. I threw both in college and I never really had that sharp downward movement and tonight, for whatever reason, I had it."
Sexton retired his final seven batters and exited with the no-hitter intact. He gave way to Bowen, who worked a perfect eighth. Perez struck out Kristian Brito to start the ninth before allowing a grounder up the middle to Jhombeyker Morales for a base hit.
"The competitive side of me obviously wants the ball in my hand," Sexton said. "I had faith that our bullpen would get it done, and what made it worse was that it wasn't even a sharply hit ball. It was a little seeing-eye single that got up the middle, a little six-or seven-hopper that just squeaked through. Nothing to hang our heads on."
Perez got two more outs on the ground to close out the LumberKings.
Knizner had a double, two singles, two RBIs and a pair of runs scored for Peoria. Dylan Carlson homered and singled twice, while Jackson doubled twice, drove in one run and scored another.