CLEARWATER — When Gaither junior Drew Doty smacked Mitchell High School's Patrick Schuster's inside fastball deep to rightfield for an immortalized third-inning double Tuesday, the nation's best-known prep pitcher responded with a gesture teeming with sportsmanship and gratitude.
"I turned around and I said, 'Thank you,' " said Patrick Schuster, a Mitchell High senior left-hander who was seeking his fifth consecutive no-hitter. "It's done now and I don't have to worry about it anymore."
With that one fell swat, Schuster-mania came to its inevitable conclusion, two no-hitters shy of the national record. Patrick Schuster, who hasn't shaved his thick brown goatee since last allowing a hit March 24, had his razor in his bag Tuesday, ready to revert to a clean-shaven look.
What he wasn't ready for was the fact his prep career would end right along with this circus.
On a day when he struggled from the outset, Schuster watched most of his teammates do the same. Gaither drew 12 walks off three pitchers and pounced on three Mitchell errors for a 9-4 upset in the semifinals of the Class 6A, District 7 tournament.
Schuster, who had struck out 60 and walked only seven in his state record four no-hitters, exited after scattering three hits, striking out five, walking five, hitting three and allowing three earned runs in five innings.
"It's been great, but this is a way to put (the no-hit streak) to a stopping halt," said Schuster, who threw 101 pitches, according to the official scorekeeper.
"After warming up, my arm didn't feel like it did the last three games or any time I threw well. I wasn't hitting my spots well and my offspeeds weren't moving as much as they should have. I knew I was going to have to fight to stay in the game today."
Before a crowd of approximately 1,000 — not to mention a live regional TV audience — Schuster struggled to stay in the strike zone and lacked the snap on his typically mesmerizing slider.
Before the first inning ended, the 6-foot-2 University of Florida signee had walked two, hit one batter and watched his defense commit two errors as Gaither took a 1-0 lead.
"You can't go out there and have your perfect stuff every single night," Mustangs coach Scot Wilcox said. "The best pitchers in the major leagues, they go out there and they have an off night."
In the third, Schuster hit junior Mike Danner with a pitch that left Danner bloodied above his upper lip. Doty followed with his double on a 1-and-0 pitch.
"I think everybody in the dugout took a sigh of relief (after the hit)," said Gaither coach Frank Permuy, whose club faces Alonso at 7 p.m. Thursday in the district title game.
"I mean, four no-hitters in a row is phenomenal. … He's just a freak."
And an exhausted one. Schuster, who is schedule to throw out the first pitch of the Rays game Sunday against Boston at Tropicana Field, said he'll likely step back from baseball until the big-league draft in June. With his 90-91 mph fastball, he's rated the 79th best prospect — the 42nd-best high school prospect — in the country by Baseball America.
"I'm going to go hide in a hole for a little bit and stay out of the spotlight for a while and enjoy myself," he said.
"I've been more appreciative of the man he is and the way he's handled it," added Schuster's mom, Sharon.
"I don't know too many 18-year-olds that could stand up under the pressure and scrutiny that he's been under and act like an adult. … We're extremely proud of him right now."