Former Sherwood star Jason Townsend, who now pitches for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Double-A minor-league team in Altoona, Pa., throws during the seventh inning of Thursday’s game against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Townsend, one of the team’s top relievers, came on in the fifth inning of a no-hitter and pitched three near-perfect innings before two of his teammates came on and closed out the franchise’s second-ever no-no. (Jeremy Boland/Altoona Curve)
ALTOONA, Pa. — The memory of the line drive screaming at his face, the sting of the impact, the badly swollen hand — and the months of painful rehab that followed — all washed away Thursday night for Jason Townsend.
A no-hitter has a way of doing that for a pitcher.
“It was pretty cool,” Townsend said during a telephone interview Friday, shortly before his minor-league team, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Double-A Altoona Curve, were set to take the field less than 24 hours after Townsend and three of his teammates combined for the Curve’s second-ever no-hitter during a 5-0 win against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. “That’s the first real no-hitter I’ve ever been a part of.”
The thing is, he almost wasn’t.
Townsend, the 24-year-old former Sherwood and University of Alabama baseball star who earned the win in Thursday’s no-hitter with three seamless innings of work, started the season as one of Altoona’s top relievers — that is, until he missed nearly two months after being nailed on his throwing hand by a line drive.
“I get hit all the time — at least once or twice a year — but it’s always off my leg or foot. This one was different,” he said of the mid-April game against the Richmond (Va.) Flying Squirrels, a Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. “I threw a fastball a little too down the middle and left it up, and next thing I knew the ball was coming right at me. I put my hand up to stop it — because you’re just trying to protect yourself at that point — and it smashed into me.
“I left the game right away, and they took me to the emergency room. Luckily, nothing was broken, but the swelling was so bad and my hand ballooned up so big, it took almost two weeks for it heal.”
Townsend’s father Barry and his mother Teresa heard about the injury within minutes of their son being taken to the hospital.
“His agent called and said it looked so bad that we almost got on a plane and went up there,” Barry said. “At first, they thought all five fingers had been broken and the team was worried. We were worried. Everyone was worried.”
Townsend was put on the disabled list, unable to even pick up a baseball with his injured hand for more than a week. And following a month of rehab, he thought he was ready to return.
But the same Jason Townsend who had an ERA of around 1.50 when he left in April — and was the first reliever called on after the starter’s time was up — was not the same Jason Townsend who returned in May.
And before he knew it — like his right hand — Townsend’s ERA ballooned.
“Oh, man ... it went up to somewhere in the high nines. It wasn’t good,” he said Friday. “I’d like to say (getting hit) didn’t mess with (my head), but I think subconsciously, it definitely did. Deep down, I tried not to think about it, but I was. And I struggled because of it.
“My mechanics were all messed up, I was giving up a lot of runs — a lot of home runs, actually — and it really messed me up. Before I got hurt, I don’t think I’ve ever been taken out of a game with an injury in my entire career. It just took a while to get back in the groove.”
Fast forward to Thursday night.
With Townsend’s ERA gradually getting lower with every outing since the injury, he had resumed his role as the first reliever called upon out of the bullpen coming into Thursday’s game against the Fisher Cats. And when starting pitcher Ethan Hollingsworth was pulled after four scoreless — and hitless — innings, it was Townsend’s turn to see if he could continue what was shaping up to be a historic evening for the Curve.
But as Townsend tells it, he hadn’t a clue what was happening when he took the mound.
“I guess I was just so wrapped up in the game and looking to do my job and make good pitches that I didn’t even notice we hadn’t given up a hit yet,” he said. “I started to realize when I was walking back to the dugout after the sixth inning and everyone was excited about this leaping catch our second baseman had made in the sixth. But when I got to the dugout, the mood was weird. No one was really talking. It got very quiet.”
Townsend then added: “So I leaned over the rail to get a glimpse of the scoreboard — and that’s when I saw it. I remember feeling this big gulp in my throat and feeling thirsty all of the sudden. I walked over to the cooler, grabbed a cup of water, downed it and thought, ‘Oh my god ... No way.’ ”
That’s right — the no-no was not only firmly on Townsend’s shoulders, he was now acutely aware of it.
“Let’s just say I was sweating quite a bit when I went back out for the seventh,” he said with a grin.
The seventh inning was less of a trying task for Townsend as he induced three groundball outs. Short reliever Jhonathan Ramos took over in the eighth and retired the first batter with a groundout to second before the Fisher Cats’ Ryan Schimpf came to the plate. Schimpf gave the no-no a run for its money with a liner down the right-field line that sailed just foul. Ramos bounced back to strike him out and then induce another groundout to end the inning.
The final pitcher who played a part in Curve’s history was Ryan Beckman. The closer was summoned for the ninth and retired both Fisher Cats batters on routine groundballs before dealing with third baseman Andy Burns. Burns took a two-strike pitch into the hole at short and third baseman Adalberto Santos went to make a play on the ball. Santos fielded it cleanly and after getting the ball into his throwing hand, he tossed the ball to first base in time to get Burns to secure the no-no.
Back in Albany, it’s very possible that Barry and Teresa Townsend might’ve woken the neighbors Thursday evening.
“By the time Jason pitched the seventh and we knew they were six outs away, we had the game cranked up as loud as it could go and we were hollering after every out,” Barry said. “We were pacing. By the end, I think we wore a hole in the floor.”
Townsend, who is in his third season of pro ball after being taken in the 31st round by the Pirates in 2010, said he considered it the first “real” no-hitter he’d been a part of because this one went nine innings and was played at the professional level. But it was not his first no-no.
“I pitched a seven-inning no-hitter my junior year at Sherwood and then one time for Post 30,” he said. “But nothing compared to this.”
The only other no-hitter in Alatoona Curve franchise history occurred on April 23, 2002 — when Townsend was just 13 years old — and it ironically came on a night when, not far away, the Pirates’ Triple-A team, the Indianapolis Indians, got no-hit themselves.
“How about that for weird?” Townsend asked. “We found out about that after the game. We couldn’t believe it.”
Speaking of belief, Townsend finally has it again. That plus-9 ERA has come down slightly and now sits at 8.15. Barry said that number will only continue to drop as Jason “slowly becomes his old dominant self again.”
“The fact he was the first guy out of the pen when they had a no-hitter going — and they let him throw three innings — tells me they know he’s on his way back,” Townsend’s father said. “He was skittish after being hit, but I think (Thursday night) went a long way to him getting over that.”
Townsend, who is 2-3 on the season and quickly working his way back onto the radar of scouts who can pull the trigger on his next promotion, sure hopes so. The Curve are currently 47-56 overall and sit nine games out of first place with the top two teams in each division making the playoffs once the season ends. Townsend said he’s never made a deep run with any of the teams he’s played for so far in his pro career, but as he and the rest of his teammates watch the Pirates’ big-league club enjoy one of their best seasons in decades, he said he can’t help but lie awake at night sometimes and dream of the day his name is called.
As for how he sees his first major league start going — whenever that day may come?
“A no-hitter would ne nice,” he laughed.