One Wild Evening: Spencer Howard Relives His 2018 No-Hitter
Warming up in the bullpen, Spencer Howard didn’t like the way the ball was coming out of his hand. After spending the second half of 2018 dominating, he didn’t feel like the same pitcher who’d struck out 81 over the final 64 innings of the season.
Some nerves before the game might have been understandable—he was, after all, pitching with a chance to put his Lakewood team into the South Atlantic League Championship Series—but that wasn’t the case.
Instead, he decided to let it all hang out and let the chips fall where they may.
"I think I hit the point of, ‘Well, let me stop caring and go compete’ earlier than I would have usually. Sometimes that happens. I’m sure a lot of other people in sports can attest to that when you feel really bad in warmups or whatever, you actually start to perform better when it actually counts. It was kind of crazy.”
It got crazier.
Howard punched out two in the first inning, then struck out a pair more in the second inning before working around an error in the third. By the middle innings, he started to realize that he was working on something special.
"It probably wasn’t until the middle of the game, I’d say like the fifth or the sixth, that I actually got into a groove and started to feel really good,” Howard recalled. "There was one inning where there was an error and then maybe I yanked a curveball and hit a guy in the foot.
"But then there’s always one play where it could swing either way, and then that was (Jose) Antequera, I think was playing third, and there was a ground ball down the line and he made this sliding to a knee play, and after that it was like, 'Holy s---, that was legit, that could have been it.' ”
Because the game was two years ago, we can safely say it: Howard was working on a no-hitter. He’d never thrown one in college, never thrown one in high school and never thrown one in Little League, either.
Here he was, though, at the tail end of his first full season as a professional, nine outs away from putting a historic stamp on his team’s second championship series berth in three seasons. Quite the feat for someone who entered college with a fastball that sat in the mid-80s.
By 2017, Howard’s velocity had jumped to the mid-90s. That led the Phillies to spend their second-round pick on him. A year later, he was brushing the upper 90s often, and during the course of his special night in September, he hit 100 mph for the first time.
A fastball can only take you so far, however, and Howard worked diligently throughout the season to sharpen his offspeed stuff and turn himself into a more complete pitcher. The need to do so became painfully clear during his rough early-season stretch.
"It was mostly the consistency of having offspeed where I wanted it to be, I guess. Because it wasn't that it was any worse. I’d just throw a couple of balls with it and completely bail on it and just keep pounding fastballs,” he said. "All professional hitters can hit fastballs, so I was getting punished for doing that and then it felt like my fastball wasn’t good because they’re hitting it, when really it was just because I wasn’t using anything else. That was just kind of the story of it for a few months there.”
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Currently, Howard features a tantalizing complement of pitches, including a slider, changeup and curveball that each project to be at least above average. In 2018, his changeup was his dominant weapon, but the rest of the arsenal had started to round into form by the time the season neared its conclusion.
"That whole season, (the changeup) was kind of my go-to offspeed, but I definitely remember a handful of curveballs too that were much more competitive than what they had been early in the season,” Howard said. "It was probably a perfect storm of me having a little bit more consistency and (knowing) we had a plan going into the game of what we wanted to do: ride the high fastball and get ahead early and then go to offspeed stuff, and then we just stuck with that the whole way, so … it was crazy.”
Howard cruised through the eighth inning on just four pitches, setting things up for a dramatic ninth inning. Not only was the no-hitter still on the line, the BlueClaws’ lead was just one run. The first two hitters of the ninth were retired on one pitch each, setting up a matchup between Howard and Kannapolis’ Steele Walker with history on the line.
After falling behind Walker 3-1, Howard went back to the hard stuff.
"I was a little bit too excited and got out of my mechanics a little bit and started yanking balls,” he said. "Then I took a deep breath, calmed down and just threw a fastball and he popped it up and that was that.”
A no-hitter, a triple-digit fastball and a chance to play for a championship, all in one wild evening that easily ranks as the best game of Howard’s professional career.
The clubhouse celebration was doubly raucous that night, with sparkling apple cider flowing fast and free and Lakewood manager Marty Malloy as excited as Howard had ever seen him.
"It was like, ‘holy s---, that just happened,’ Howard said. "I was speechless. It was crazy.”