Baseball season ushered in with early no-hitters

Rampart baseball Taylor Zaiger

(Photo courtesy of Jake Huard)

Forget easing into things. Some pitchers were itching to get the baseball season started and came out throwing like it was late April rather than early March.

In the early stages of the 2019 baseball season, six pitchers had made it through their first starts without giving up a hit.

Ralston Valley's Joey Steiskal seven innings, striking out eight and walking two hitters. The Mustangs came away with a 3-0 over Lincoln on March 9.

That same day, Colorado Academy's Emmett Ela and Graham Osman combined to no-hit Steamboat Springs over five innings. The duo repeated the feat three days later in a win over Ellicott.

Last week, on Friday, Montrose junior Aaron Dietrich tossed a five-inning no-hitter in a 13-0 win over Pagosa Springs. He struck out 11, and walked four.

The no-hitters started as soon as the baseball season opened.

On March 7, the first day of competition, Lewis-Palmer's Jason Shuger went seven innings, striking out 13 hitters and walking three in a 5-0 win over Ponderosa. Shuger, an Air Force Academy commit, barely got settled into the game before realizing that he was much better than how he typically starts the season.

"The last couple of seasons, I've had some stinky first appearances so I was really excited to go out there and have a great game like that," he said. "I started thinking about it in the third inning and was hoping that nobody jinxed it. We weren't putting up runs so I figured we'd be going seven and I was pitching pretty well. I just wanted to go out and keep doing my thing."

He did just that. He followed that game up with three solid innings against Coronado. He once again proved to be tough to hit. The Cougars were able to register a base hit off a bunt, but even by the time Shuger left the game — due to coach Brett Lester wanting to staff the game on the mound — his opponents' batting average was a stingy .032 on the year.

"I'm still a little angry about (the bunt)," said Shuger, who currently leads the state with 36 strikeouts.

He'll get over it. The fact that he's thrown so well in his first two outings is an encouraging sign for the Rangers. He's been developing as a pitcher for the last several seasons and his work didn't have to wait a few starts to start paying off.

His offseason work leading into the season is a big reason that he started the season on such a high note.

"Jason's been working hard since he came into our program as a freshman," Lester said. "Going into his senior year committed to Air Force, he took on a brand new work ethic. Most pitchers aren't 100 percent mid-season form at the beginning of the year. Jason has been throwing bullpens since early January and we were prepared to let him go 100 pitches."

The same thing can be said for another pitcher a few miles south of Lewis-Palmer. Rampart's Taylor Zaiger threw a gem of a game against Fruita Monument on March 7, the same day that Shuger threw his no-hitter.

Like Steiskal and Shuger, Zaigler went all seven innings. He struck out eight and walked one, but control was a bit of a factor as he he four batters.

"He was actually saving his pitch count by hitting them," Rampart coach Jake Huard said with a laugh.

If there was one thing that Huard was monitoring with his staff ace, it was the number of pitches he was throwing. He knows he has a horse in Zaigler but wanted to make sure that he was easing him into the schedule rather than loading him up early.

Zaigler killed that theory as he got through inning after inning without surrendering a hit.

"My main concern of the day was that it was early in the season and I didn't want him to throw too many pitches," Huard said. "We want them to progress through the year into the year with pitch counts. When we saw him dominating and not giving up a hit we had to let him do his thing. He was getting stronger as the day went on."

Unlike Shuger, Zaigler said he didn't know he threw a no-hitter until the game was over. He was too focused on just doing what he needed to do to get through the game and get the Rams a win.

But just as Huard saw him getting stronger as the game went on, Zaigler said that he started feeling his groove as he got deeper into his pitch count.

"Later in the game I felt more comfortable," Zaigler said. "You start learning the mound, learning the strike zone, get a feel for your arm and know where you're going to throw it. It's a big comfort zone later in the game."

The early success for these pitchers can be a bit of a double-edged sword. It sends a message to teams on the schedule that there are indeed aces that can do some damage. But with the way the winter storms pounded the front range early in the season, it also gives opponents a chance to shuffle the schedule around so that they don't have to face those top-line hurlers.

"It's something other coaches are aware of," Lester said. "Once this storm hit and we started rescheduling games, people are trying to put games together for us when we have two or three games in a week hoping that we won't be able to throw Jason against them."

That's a task easier said than done. With the toughest stretch of the season starting in the weeks after spring break, pitchers like Steiskal, Ela, Osman, Dietrich, Shuger and Zaigler will see their share of important innings.

No-hitters are tough to come by. There's no telling if any of these three can register another one this year. But they've certainly given onlookers a reason to check them out.