Keith Moreland's knees were buckling and his nerves were frazzled. One out from a no-hitter against the Baltimore Pride in a recent Clark C. Griffith Collegiate Baseball League game, the batter he was facing fouled off six straight pitches.
But even with the soft ground ball to the shortstop that completed the first no-hitter in the 2004 Clark Griffith season, it wasn't the most important game of Moreland's summer. It wasn't even the most important game he'd pitched against Baltimore.
Moreland, fresh off the high school baseball diamond, made his key appearance of the season much earlier, in the Bethesda Big Train's fourth game. With the Big Train down by four runs, Moreland came in to pitch 62/3 innings of relief, giving up just one run and allowing Bethesda to stage a comeback win.
For a pitcher who wasn't even sure he would stay on the roster all season, it was a defining moment.
"I knew I had a lot to learn, I still do," said Moreland, an All-Met as a senior last spring at St. John's. "The big thing was just proving myself to them, showing I can hang with people at the collegiate level."
Clark Griffith teams rarely take such young players, fearing they won't be able to compete with the more experienced college athletes. Moreland was an exception, but few expectations followed him into the league.
"Our experience in the past with players coming out of high school hasn't been great, so we were a little tentative," Big Train Manager Derek Hacopian said. "What we said to Keith was, 'We're not going to have all our players in, because a lot of our players will be in NCAA regional play. But we can't guarantee you'll be on the roster' " the entire season.
That's why Moreland's early performance was so crucial. Instead of releasing him, the Big Train let go of a couple of college players because the coaches believed Moreland could help them more -- and he's backed up that confidence with a vengeance.
Moreland has proven to be one of the top pitchers in the league, posting a 6-1 record with a 1.16 ERA in 10 appearances. He has 41 strikeouts in 462/3 innings for the Big Train, which remained in first place entering last night's 7-3 victory over the Vienna Senators.
Not bad for someone regarded as a question mark at the start of the summer season.
Hacopian said it was "very, very rare" for a high schooler to dominate the league the way Moreland has this season. When a high school senior is good enough to mow down college hitters, he's generally drafted and doesn't get the opportunity to play in summer leagues, instead heading to the minor leagues.
"Keith's a big, strong kid," Hacopian said. "Physically there's not a question. He's throwing like a college pitcher now. He's starting to get his curveball over for strikes more. He's starting to spot his fastball better."
Moreland's confidence and willingness to learn have enabled his breakout summer performance. According to his father, Mike, Moreland made vast improvements in high school, something that might not have happened without the school's coaching staff.
In fact, Moreland had made such progress that he considered jumping right into the minor leagues after high school. The family spent a lot of time on the phone with major league scouts, but, in the end, Moreland's name wasn't called in the June draft.
"I mean, playing pro ball has always been my dream," Moreland said. "If I had been drafted, it would have been hard to pass it up. But I don't want to go into professional ball, play two years, then be done."
Instead, he's starring in summer league play and anticipating his collegiate debut at the University of Charlotte.
But Moreland's rapid climb to the top of the Clark Griffith league statistics may not translate to instant success in the college ranks. Unlike college ball, the Clark Griffith league uses wood bats.
"The one thing that's going to be a little different is that the college guys are swinging a wood bat for the first time" in the summer league, said Loren Hibbs, baseball coach at Charlotte. "I don't want to take anything away from Keith, but at the level he's going to be pitching here, older players are going to be swinging aluminum bats.
"We want to recruit guys that want to play at the major league level. Some get the opportunity, and some don't. . . . We're thinking that if he continues to work at it, listen, make the progress that he's made, he's got a good chance to play and get paid for it."