No-Hitter Sends BlueClaws To Championships 

Lakewood teammates douse Spencer Howard after his gem. (Photo courtesy The Lakewood BlueClaws)

LAKEWOOD – Spencer Howard pitched a no-hitter Friday night, leading the Lakewood BlueClaws past the Kannapolis Intimidators 1-0 in the South Atlantic League playoffs.

“I don’t think it has sunk in yet,” he said while his teammates staged a celebration in the team’s clubhouse. “It’s kind of surreal. It was a lot of fun. It went by quick. It’s incredible. I have no words for it.”

The victory gave Lakewood, the Philadelphia Phillies’ low Class A farm team, a 2-0 sweep of its best of three Northern Division Championship Series against the Chicago White Sox affiliate from North Carolina. The BlueClaws advanced to the best of five SAL Championship Series in which they will meet the Lexington (Ky.) Legends, a Kansas City Royals farm club.

The first two games of the series will be played in Kentucky. The remaining games will take place at FirstEnergy Park beginning Thursday, Sept. 13.     Howard, a righty, threw as hard as 100 mph at FirstEnergy Park in his Sept. 7 classic. He blazed a 100 mph high, inside fastball past an enemy hitter for one of his nine strikeouts. Howard walked one, hit one batter and unleashed one wild pitch.

Lakewood’s Spencer Howard fires a pitch during his no-hitter. (Photo courtesy The Lakewood BlueClaws)

He threw 103 pitches, including 73 for strikes. He faced 30 batters – just three over the minimum in a nine-inning game. He threw the seventh gem in the history of the BlueClaws, who began play in 2001. It was the third nine-inning no-hitter by a single Lakewood pitcher (Gavin Floyd in 2002 and Nick Fanti last season).

And it was Lakewood’s first postseason no-hitter in franchise history.

“It’s the first night all season that I had my curve working,” Howard said. “It’s the first night all year that I had confidence in it. I have been working on it a lot and it finally came together. I used it more than I did my changeup. I probably had the best command of my fastball that I had all season I worked on my curveball extensively for the entirety of the year. This was the first time in a game setting that it was this controlled.

“In college, I didn’t really have it and last season I worked on a spike curve. The movement was there, but I really didn’t know how to throw it or compete with it. I played off the high fastball with it and I threw a couple in the dirt that were chase pitches.”

Howard said Lakewood catcher Rodolfo Duran played large roles throughout the game.

“I trusted him – the way he called the game,” Howard said after whiffing four of his first six hitters. “We were on the same page for the whole game.”

Howard needed a mere four pitches to work through the eighth inning.

“At the end, I threw my fastball where I was supposed to,” he said. “I let them (the Intimidators) put it in play.”

Howard said he began thinking a no-hitter was possible late in the game.

A teammate grabs Spencer Howard as the celebration erupts. (Photo courtesy The Lakewood BlueClaws)

“Heading into the eighth, I noticed it,” he said. “When I went to the mound in the ninth, I kind of noticed it. Our fans noticed it. I could tell that by the way they were cheering.”

The announced crowd of 3,592 roared its approval as Howard registered the game’s final out with a fly to left field off the bat of Steele Walker to Matt Vierling.

Howard worked on his fundamentals while warming up in the bullpen prior to the game.

“I went through my mechanics and got myself synced up,” he said. “I had a plan and it worked out. When I saw them go against us in the first game of the series, I saw they attacked the fastball.”

Kannapolis loaded the bases in the third, in which Lakewood first baseman Jake Scheiner and shortstop Nick Maton made both of their team’s two errors, but Howard wriggled out of the jam, getting Walker to line to first base to end the inning.

A Kannapolis leadoff batter reached first base in the sixth when he was hit by a pitch. However, Howard righted himself, retiring 18 of his final 19 hitters.

Howard, 22, was drafted by the Phillies in the second round in 2017 out of Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo where he was a walk-on. The Templeton. Calif., resident was 9-8 with a 3.78 earned run average during the regular season for the BlueClaws as they won the overall league title and the first and second-half Northern Division championships.

The 6-foot-3 Howard was second on the team in wins and paced the SAL in strikeouts with 147 in 112 innings. He was third on the club in innings pitched. He appeared in and started 23 games. He tossed one complete game. He allowed 101 hits, including six home runs, and 40 walks. He posted a 12.6 WHIP (walks and hits to innings pitched).

Lakewood manager Marty Malloy has guided the BlueClaws to a season chock full of championships. (Photo courtesy The Lakewood BlueClaws)

Howard, a 200-pounder, is ranked 18th in the Phillies’ minor league system by Baseball America. He began his professional career in 2017 with the Williamsport (Pa.) Crosscutters of the New York-Penn League, a short-season Class A circuit. He was 1-1 with a 4.45 earned run average in 28.1 innings in nine games. He whiffed 27 batters in his final 17 innings of the year.

Howard received a $1.17 million signing bonus from the Phillies after being selected in the first-year player draft, according to mlb.com. The bonus was $373,800 under slot.

Philadelphia’s amateur scouting department rated Howard as the draft’s top right handed pitcher. Howard was 8-1 with a 1.95 earned run average in his final season at Cal-Poly where he struck out 97 and walked 23 in his final season.

Howard threw his other no-hitter as a seventh grader in California.

The BlueClaws scored the only run they needed in the bottom of the sixth in which Simon Muzziotti plated Jose Antequera with a two-out single to left-center field.

“Obviously, it’s exciting,” Howard said. “It gives us momentum going into the next series and hopefully it’ll help us come away with a ring.”

Blueclaws News Bites: Lakewood’s other no-hitters: Keith Bucktrot (seven innings, 2001), Floyd (nine innings, loss, 2002), Carlos Carrasco and Andy Barb (2006), Jeb Stefan, Ramon Ovideo and Chris Burgess (2013), Nick Fanti and Trevor Bettencourt (2017), Fanti (2017).

Lakewood has advanced to the SAL Championship Series all five times it has qualified for postseason play. Lakewood, which won the playoffs in 2006, 2009 and 2010, is 20-7 all-time in postseason play.

The BlueClaws threw a minor league baseball best 23 shutouts during the regular season in 2018 and the blanking of the Intimidators was their first shutout of the postseason.

Lakewood was 87-51 overall (.630). It was 46-23 (.667) during the second half and 41-28 (.594) in the first half of the season.

Lexington was 70-60 (.559) overall during the regular season. It won the second-half Southern Division title at 39-29 (.574) and was third in the division in the first half (37-31, .544).

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Chris Christopher covers sports for Micromedia Publications Inc. with knowledge, pride and passion. His beats are the high school, college, professional, youth and recreational scenes. A three-time New Jersey Press Association award winner for sports writing, Christopher was inducted into the Shore Football Coaches Foundation Hall of Fame in 2015 for his work in the media. The Lakewood resident enjoys taking walks in Ocean County Park and on the boardwalks in Ocean and Monmouth counties and rooting for the New York Mets.