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Mitchell's might extends beyond arm of no-hit ace

TRINITY — By now, most of the nation's sports fans have heard of Patrick Schuster.

In the wake of his fourth consecutive no-hitter, reporters from the St. Petersburg Times to Sports Illustrated have prodded and poked around for any morsel of information on the Mitchell lefty.

We know what he does before games (manicures the mound) and what he eats after them (chicken Caesar salad from Beef O'Brady's). We know he paints the corners with his slider and scrubs decks at a nearby marina. We know how he lost his older brother (to cancer) and how he gained a goatee (by refusing to shave during his no-hit streak).

But amid the attention brought on by Schuster's mesmerizing stretch, one significant story line has essentially been glossed over.

Mitchell (22-3) is a bona fide Class 6A state title contender.

And Schuster is only part of the reason.

"I can confidently say that we haven't won many games because of pitching," said second-year coach Scot Wilcox, whose team is seeded second in this week's Class 6A, District 7 baseball tournament. "We're winning games because we're putting runs on the board and our pitchers are keeping us in it."

While Schuster's numbers — 261/3 consecutive no-hit innings, 60 strikeouts during the streak — have become etched in the mainstream consciousness, a few other figures essentially have been overlooked.

The Mustangs are averaging nearly eight runs a game. Their .358 team batting average is the best among North Suncoast public schools. Five everyday players — including Schuster — are hitting .375 or better.

And Mitchell's other two regular starting pitchers — Matt Hewitt and Michael Grande — have ERAs of 1.76 and 1.80, respectively.

"Yeah, the streak that Schuster has going is just unbelievable, and maybe one of those games we wouldn't have won if he wasn't pitching. Maybe two of them," Wilcox added. "But if you ask Schuster, the first thing he'll give credit to is his teammates, defensively and offensively."

He already has. Seconds into his postgame interview after Monday's no-hitter against Pasco, Schuster was asked what having the state record for consecutive no-nos meant.

His response: "It just shows how great of players my teammates are just supporting me."

Such support didn't always exist. While Schuster's arm was a known commodity entering the season, his offense wasn't. Mitchell won 14 games and a conference title in 2008 but hit only .276 as a team with five home runs — 10 fewer than its total this year.

Wilcox said his hitters would look great in the cage, only to disappear when the lights came on. Senior catcher Doug Burlett said he and his teammates often would psyche themselves out before stepping in to face the district's better pitchers.

"You're walking up there thinking he's better than he is and you get all flustered," said Burlett (.449), who is headed for Pasco-Hernando Community College with top hitter Matt Hart (.514, eight homers). "He kind of beats you before you get up there. I think that was most of it."

Confidence began sprouting during the fall season, when the Mustangs flourished in a Clearwater-based league. "You could tell watching that we were going to be good," Burlett said.

It then blossomed in March. In a five-night span, the Mustangs rallied for wins over district foes Sickles (in 11 innings) and Alonso. In the Alonso game, Schuster had his worst outing, allowing a third-inning grand slam before Mitchell rallied for three runs in the seventh for a 7-5 win. Diminutive sophomore Kevin Games finished a triple shy of the cycle.

"He put Schuster on his back," Wilcox said, "and that's the reason we won."

Maybe that's the secret behind Schuster-mania. Everyone has carried the load.

Even as a watchful nation gets carried away.

Mitchell's might extends beyond arm of no-hit ace 04/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 25, 2009 11:09pm]
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