Dustin Nippert lost his spot in the Major Leagues in April, but he took a big step back toward Texas on Sunday.
Nippert tied a season high with five strikeouts in pitching the first no-hitter in team history as the Oklahoma RedHawks blanked the Omaha Royals, 2-0, in the first game of a doubleheader at Rosenblatt Stadium.
Nippert (6-2), who began the season in the Majors with Texas, threw 51 of 86 pitches for strikes in his best start of the season. He walked two and induced nine grounders and five popups over seven innings for his first win since June 9.
"To throw a no-hitter, it has to rank up there, probably No. 1," he said. "I'll remember this for a while."
The 27-year-old said he finally realized he had a shot at a no-hitter when he took the mound to warm up for the seventh.
"I'd kind of realized it a little, but it didn't hit me until the seventh, and I thought to myself, 'Wow, I'm three outs away, I need to concentrate here, get this thing done.' And I was just fortunate to get it," he said.
The 6-foot-8 right-hander cruised through much of the game, his only trouble coming in the third inning when he walked Chris Lubanski and Mitch Maier. But with runners at second and third, Nippert got Major League veteran Shane Costa bounce out to first base.
"I just was opening up too much on the front, on my landing leg. It's something I've been working on," Nippert said. "I wasn't coming straight to the plate, my pitches were getting off line, my back was pulling me over. But I was lucky enough to get out of it."
The struggles came and went in the third. Ryan Shealy reached on an error by third baseman Travis Metcalf leading off the seventh, and Nippert admitted he was a little nervous.
"I heard it hit his glove, and nine times out of 10, he'll make that play," Nippert said. "I didn't look at the scoreboard to see what happened, but the fans started booing, so I figured they'd given him an error."
With a runner on, Nippert closed the door by getting Jason Smith to hit into a forceout at first and coaxed a game-ending double play from Brian Buchanan.
"Everyone rushed the mound, we were all jumping around. It was pretty special," Nippert said. "It feels good. I'd never seen a no-hitter thrown, except for on TV, so it's a pretty neat feeling."
Nippert's no-hitter was the second in the Pacific Coast League this season. Franklin Morales, another Major League veteran, combined with three relievers to pitch the Colorado Springs Sky Sox past the Albuquerque Isotopes, 5-1, on May 11.
"I felt good. I kind of knew it was a seven-inning game going in, but I wasn't thinking about that," Nippert said. "I just try to make my pitches and not worry about results."
First-place Oklahoma (46-37) gave Nippert a lead in the second when former first-round pick John Mayberry lined a leadoff double and came home when Nate Gold reached on an error by shortstop Angel Sanchez. Metcalf doubled home Gold for a 2-0 cushion.
Nippert did the rest and credited catcher Taylor Teagarden with calling the right pitches all afternoon.
"I was mostly relying on the curveball and changeup, and Teagarden was doing a real good job of recognizing what was working," he explained. "He caught a great game."
It was the best start for Nippert since his Oklahoma debut on May 2, when he allowed two hits over five shutout frames to beat Tacoma. He gave up one run on six hits over six innings against Omaha on May 30 and has won four of his last five decisions.
The Wheeling, W. Va., native appears to have regained his confidence after a rough six-game stint with the Rangers from April 4-21. Nippert, who pitched 45 1/3 innings over 36 appearances for the Diamondbacks last season, went 1-2 with a 16.62 ERA in April with Texas.
A rough outing against Boston on April 21 punched his ticket to Oklahoma, and the West Virginia University product has been consistent over 10 starts and two relief appearances.
Arizona's 15th-round pick in the 2002 Draft, he has appeared in 47 big league games over four seasons with the Diamondbacks and Rangers. He downplayed the notion that the no-hitter might bring him a step closer to the Majors.
"I try to work on doing what I can control, and that's pitching well," he said. "When I get the ball, I do my job. Hopefully, they'll give me another opportunity. Right now, I go out there every five days and try to make my pitches and get a win."
Nippert opened eyes in 2006 when he went 13-8 with a 4.94 ERA and struck out a career-high 130 batters over 140 1/3 innings in 25 games for Triple-A Tucson.
Fellow Major League veteran Brandon Duckworth (3-7) also went the distance for Omaha (40-40), allowing one earned run on seven hits and a walk. It was his first complete game since July 5, 2001.