Tuesday April 21st, 2009

NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. -- Standing behind home plate, behind the wall of poised radar guns, four consecutive no-hitters didn't seem so improbable. Trying to wrap the brain around the concept -- four games without even one Texas-leaguer or seeing-eye single -- grows more difficult with each of Patrick Schuster's starts. But in the moment, against a fastball that looks like a Ferrari changing lanes on the Autobahn and a slider that spends just enough time in the strike zone to entice a swing, a hit would have offered more of a surprise.

So after Schuster, a senior at Mitchell High in Trinity, Fla., blew a fastball past Pasco High designated hitter Trejon Smith to seal Monday's 5-0, 17-strikeout win, it felt odd that his teammates would mob him and douse him with the water bucket. Against stuff like that, how could the Pirates have gotten a hit? But as the seconds passed and the enormity of the accomplishment sunk in, the celebration made perfect sense.

Schuster is the undisputed no-hit king in a state that routinely cranks out pro prospects. His no-no against Pasco broke a 24-year-old Florida record, and he needs two more to tie the national record. One longtime local observer who watched Dwight Gooden pitch at Tampa's Hillsborough High said that while Schuster isn't quite the phenom Gooden was, he certainly has the makings of something special. Scouts already knew about Schuster, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound lefty with a three-quarter delivery that must make right-handed batters feel as if Schuster's 90-92 mph fastball is coming down the first base line. Those scouts lined the fences at his games on the AAU circuit this summer. So did college coaches, and Florida's Kevin O'Sullivan convinced Schuster to sign a letter of intent in November to play for the Gators next year. Assuming, of course, Schuster doesn't go pro this summer.

Schuster's notoriety remained contained to the seamhead realm until he threw his third consecutive no-hitter against Clearwater's Central Catholic on April 13. SportsCenter showed a highlight. Last Friday, Schuster went on ESPN2's First Take, where he was interviewed by Tom Engle, an ESPN producer and former minor leaguer who tied the national record for consecutive no-hitters when he threw six for Fairfield Union in Lancaster, Ohio. Mitchell's principal declared Monday Patrick Schuster Day, and that night, television vans swarmed the school parking lot, antennae raised to send video of the impending no-no. A reporter from the Tampa bureau of The Associated Press came to write a story that would be distributed across the nation.

"This kind of exploded for us," Schuster's mother, Sharon, said. "We had no clue it was going to get this crazy."

The scouts don't affect Schuster. In fact, he saw far more this summer because elite travel team tournaments are far more economical to scout than regular-season high school games. Still, the scouts were out in force Monday. Sharon Schuster said she has seen some of the usual faces during the streak. The Diamondbacks, Mets, Rays and Tigers have been regulars. The better question is this: Has the streak affected the scouts? "I've been talking to scouts," Schuster said. "They're saying none of this is making a difference. They're seeing me in a specific round, and they're not going to change it. So I'm not going to worry about it."

Ranked the nation's No. 79 prospect by Baseball America in November, Schuster is still projected as a second-round pick. Whether that will carry enough of a signing bonus to keep him from going to Gainesville remains to be seen. Whatever he chooses, he has the blessing of his family. "Really? I want to see him play pro ball. When that's going to happen, I don't know," Sharon Schuster said. "I think a mother would be crazy not to want that for her son."

Consecutive no-hit streaks are relatively poor predictors of future success. The Mets drafted Engle in the second round in 1989, but the right hander had two Tommy John surgeries and never rose above Triple A. Sam Militello, who tied the previous Florida record when he threw three in a row for Tampa's Jefferson High in 1987, was taken in the sixth round by the Yankees in the 1990 draft. He pitched in 12 games in 1992 and 1993, going 4-4 for his career. Colt Molloy, who threw five consecutive no-hitters for Memphis (Texas) High in 2007, went 1-0 with a 7.58 ERA in 19 innings as a freshman in 2008 at Seminole State, an Oklahoma junior college.

Schuster's delivery also raises concerns. While Tim Lincecum's success last season bolstered the cause of pitchers with unconventional deliveries, perfect mechanics make general managers feel safe on draft day. So consider this assessment of Schuster by Anup Sinha on the scouting site PGCrossChecker.com.

"Schuster stretches the boundaries of conventional scouting because nothing about him is conventional," Sinha wrote. "He has a stiff upright delivery with little drive coming from his lower-half. He doesn't stay back. He throws a little secondary kick with his front foot before landing. He doesn't follow through, and on some pitches finishes his delivery well across his body. It doesn't look pretty, and if you watched him in the bullpen playing catch, you might not think of Schuster as a pro prospect.

"The game is a different story. If I have to win one high school game, right now, I'd pick Patrick Schuster over anyone else I've seen around the country."

Schuster loves to compete. He seemed especially thrilled Monday that Pasco leadoff hitter Josh Johnson -- a Purdue-bound football player who could ascend in baseball if he wanted -- attacked his fastball. Schuster was more thrilled that Johnson couldn't find his slider.

That competitiveness is part of all facets of Schuster's life. On his first big deer-hunting trip, he swore he wouldn't raise his gun for anything less than a 12-point buck. When a 10-pointer wandered into range, Schuster kept his word and remained still. Finally, a 14-pointer appeared. "I missed," Schuster said, laughing.

But Schuster also has the perspective to handle the crush of scouts and media attention. To explain, his mother told a story about a pair of sunglasses and a sportcoat.

For months, Patrick has asked his parents for a pair of Oakley shades. Sharon and her husband, Roger, who run a marine supply store, said that since Patrick has a job as a deckhand at a nearby marina, he should buy the glasses himself. "He schmoozes with the old ladies for tips," Sharon said.

On Monday, Patrick also had to present his senior project, a paper on sports medicine and steroids. All senior boys presenting projects were required to wear coats and ties, and, like most teenage boys, Schuster had sprouted since the last occasion he had to wear a sport coat. So he found a potential solution -- a coat that had once belonged to his older brother, Shane. "Can I wear it?" Patrick asked his mother. "Go ahead," she said. "It's still in the closet."

Shane, 10 years Patrick's senior, had worn the coat once, to his cousin's wedding a decade ago. He never wore it again. By the time he attended that wedding, Shane was two years deep into a fight for his life.

Shane was athletic, but he never developed the taste for competition his brother would. But for some reason, Shane competed like crazy against cancer. The disease began as an osteosarcoma, a lesion on a bone in his leg. Through chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries, the family developed a routine. When Shane was in the hospital, Roger would stay with him during the day while Sharon worked at the store. In the afternoon, Sharon would pick up Patrick from elementary school and bring him to the hospital. He would spend time with Shane, and then Roger would bring Patrick home on his way to work.

Shane fought for four years. The tumor in his leg wouldn't stop growing, so doctors amputated the leg. By then, the cancer had spread to his lungs. One day near the end, 11-year-old Patrick made a plea to his parents. "If he needs a lung," Patrick said, "I'll give him one."

Shane died on Sept. 21, 2002. He was 22. Patrick attended the memorial service, but not the burial. His mother visits Shane's grave at least once a month. Patrick sometimes rides to the cemetery with Sharon, but he refuses to get out of the car. Still, Shane has stayed with Patrick. Patrick wrote the date of his brother's death on his cleats. In his locker, four rows of tape spell STS. Shane Thomas Schuster. Sharon believes Patrick's coolness, his indifference to the hordes of radar gun-toting scouts and his breezy rapport with a media contingent that has swelled exponentially in the past eight days stem from watching Shane in a competition that really mattered.

As Patrick left for school on Monday, he looked at the sky and saw storm clouds rolling in off the Gulf of Mexico. Great, he thought to himself. After all this buildup, his shot at history would get rained out. He shouldn't have worried. He should have known Monday would be special when he reached into the pocket of Shane's jacket and fished out a pair of Oakleys that had been untouched for 10 years. He immediately called his mother. "Looks like you have an angel looking out for you," Sharon said.

Later, as he celebrated the win, Schuster choked up when asked if he wore the glasses. "Too cloudy," he said, fighting tears.

Then talk turned to the national record. No-hitter No. 7 would have to come deep into the state tournament, and despite producing one Major Leaguer (former Yankees pitcher Tyler Clippard, now with the Nationals' Triple A club), Mitchell has yet to make the state tournament. Still, if Schuster could overcome the cosmic whammy one Little Leaguer put on him Monday, he just may be able to throw no-hitters against the state's best. Every time Schuster walked to the on-deck circle, 12-year-old Ryan Warren pressed his face to the fence and asked, "You still throwing a no-hitter?"

In spite of that rampant disregard for superstition, Schuster finished No. 4. He'll go for No. 5 Tuesday in a district tournament game in Clearwater. Schuster has stayed realistic about his streak. He knows that no matter how well he pitches, at some point, a hitter will stick his bat out to meet one of those 90-mph heaters. Newton's laws will do the rest. "It's gonna happen," he said Monday. "Hopefully, it'll be at the beginning of the game."

At about 10:30 Monday night, Schuster stood up from his table at Beef 'o' Brady's, a nearby chicken-wing joint. Schuster had celebrated his feat by downing a chicken Caesar salad and a Coke. One of the umpires had saved a ball from the Pasco game. Schuster signed it on the sweet spot on his way to the door. Then he hugged his parents and well-wishers and walked into the night with his girlfriend.

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