Aâ€™s Farmhand Finishes a pitch away from a Perfect Game in first start back from Skull Fracture
By Paul M. Banks
Elfstrom Stadium, home of the Kane County Cougars, (Oakland Athleticsâ€™ A Ball affiliate) was the backdrop for the young seasonâ€™s most eventful minor league game. Former Aâ€™s second round draft pick Craig Italiano and Cougars reliever Branden Dewing combined on a seven-inning no-hitter in a 3-0 shutout of the visiting Burlington Bees.
“Every now and then I’ll have stuff off the field, flashbacks and stuff, but I just shake it off,” Italiano told MiLB.com. “I just worked hard toward [returning] and planned like it was going to come. The hardest part was not doing anything for three months while the fracture healed.”
The Cougars won the first game of the doubleheader (two seven inning games were played due to the previous dayâ€™s rainout) in the bottom of the 10th when Jacob Smith walked with the bases loaded. It was the Cougars’ sixth ever no-hitter and their first since Jared Lansford accomplished the pitching feat in Beloit on May 14, 2006. The last time Cougar pitcher Craig Italiano took the mound of his home stadium, he was hospitalized and helped off the field by medical staff after a line drive struck his head, with such great force that it ricocheted into the stands. The result was a skull fracture that ended his â€™07 season. The 21-year-old was having his best performance of 2007 (exactly a year to the date of Lansford’s no-hitter) when a line shot off the bat of Wisconsin’s Carlos Triunfel struck him in the head, ending his season. This followed a 2006 campaign where Italiano was limited to just six starts before injuries forced him into shoulder surgery. However, when he returned to the mound on Wednesday, Italiano displayed the potential that makes him one of the Aâ€™s top pitching prospects.
En route to winning his first game since rookie ball in 2005, Italiano retired the first 16 batters he faced, striking out a career-high nine before hitting Antonio Jimenez with one out in the sixth inning. He then retired Ryan Eigsti before being relieved (due to pitch count limitations) by Branden Dewing, who perfectly finished out the final 1 1/3 innings for his first save. I spoke with Cougar manager Aaron Nieckula on why he took Craig out of the game
â€œHe had reached his pitch limit. Unfortunately we had to take him out. The most important thing is the health of the playerâ€¦Outstanding job, love to keep you in, been fun watching you; but Dewingâ€™s gonna pick you up. Dewing came in and did his job. I would have loved to let him out there and let him rideâ€¦If he continues to pitch like that, youâ€™ll see a lot of that at higher levels not just at A ball, thatâ€™s where it will count moreÂ too.â€
I also spoke with Italiano after the game
On the use of his breaking pitchâ€¦
I worked on that a lot, one minor adjustment to make it better; I guess I was able to get it down tonight, put it where I wanted to. I felt the same as I always do.Â The ball felt great which is a unique part in it. When I started going 3 up 3 down a couple times, I guess I started getting a little jacked up.
On a pitcher noticing aÂ no hitter as itâ€™s happeningâ€¦
You notice; itâ€™s hard not to. You look at the scoreboard and check something out. I stayed in my routine. I did the same thing, the things I always do. I tried to stay focused as much as I always do and do a good job.
What he was thinking when he had that strikeout streakâ€¦
â€œI was feeling good. Hard to remember exactly what happened out there because it felt so good. I didnâ€™t even know that I had that many in a row. Seems like I was floating out there and I guess thatâ€™s kinda what it felt like.â€Follow paulmbanks