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Hampton makes pro mark with no-hitter

It would have been easiest just to throw the fastball. Maybe that's why Mike Hampton didn't. Hampton, a 1990 Crystal River High graduate pitching for the Seattle Mariners' Class A club in San Bernardino, Calif., already had retired one batter in the ninth inning Friday night. Four days shy of his first anniversary as a professional baseball player, Hampton was two outs away from a no-hitter.

And he risked it all on his weakest pitch.

The count was two balls and two strikes to the inning's second batter. And it would have been so easy for Hampton, who thrived on 90-mile-per-hour fastballs in high school, to try to throw it past him.

Instead, he threw the change-up. Strike three.

A ground ball later, Hampton became the first pitcher in the five-year history of the San Bernardino Spirit to throw nine innings of no-hit baseball.

"I asked him after the game, "Why would you throw that pitch in that situation?'

" Spirit pitching coach Chuck Kniffin said recently.

Hampton replied: "I thought I had him set up for it."

"But how would you have felt if you gave up the first hit on your third-best pitch?" Kniffin countered.

Hampton: "Well, I knew it wasn't going to happen."

That one pitch, though only one of thousands Hampton has thrown since leaving Crystal River to follow his dream of becoming a Major League baseball player, spoke volumes for his potential to one day realized that dream.

"I look for Hampton to have a long career in the game," Kniffin said. "He has a great arm and good composure. He shows you at 18 what a lot of guys don't show you until their much older."

Like a change-up when you're looking fastball.

But it hasn't been all that easy, and success is only recent.

Since the California League started play in early April, Hampton has spent time on the disabled list with a pulled shoulder muscle and struggled with his self-confidence.

The no-hitter was his first win of the year, upping his mark to 1-2 and lowering his earned run average to 4.68. Prior to Friday, he had given up 23 hits and 25 runs, 17 earned, in 21 innings.

"I had a problem with my confidence when I was struggling early in the season, but now it doesn't matter who I face," said Hampton, who spent some time in the Spirit bullpen trying to regain his confidence after two weeks on the disabled and some ineffective performances in the starting lineup.

"The bullpen really helped me," Hampton said. "I came into one game with runners on first and second and got a ground ball to get out of the inning. It's a boost to your confidence when you can do something like that."

He went on to pitch 4-1/3 innings of no-hit relief.

"I felt comfortable, everything was working for me in the bullpen."

And everything was working Friday night, when Visalia failed to get a hit off the young left-hander in his return to the starting rotation.

"Earlier in the season when he was in the starting rotation, one thing we noticed right off was that his velocity would fluctuate from 83 to 92 miles per hour," Kniffin said. "That's a pretty big difference.

"In high school, if he got in trouble he just threw fastballs by hitters. It would probably very seldom that he would pitch with people on base. His pitches were slowing down because he was nervous because of the fact that he'd never been in that situation before.

"Friday night, he was solid between 89 and 92 miles per hour. We saw that with our gun readings. He threw 95 pitches for the whole game, which is great. It was just a pleasure to watch the kid, especially an 18-year-old that had been struggling early in the year, have a great game for himself."

Hampton, in his first appearance since throwing the no-hitter, was scheduled to start Wednesday night, again against Visalia.

And his adjustments will continue: Facing hitters who can hit his fastball, playing in front of 3,000 people instead of 30, even signing autographs at Say No to Drugs rallies.

"I didn't know much about the minor leagues when I was a kid," Hampton said. "I watched the Major Leagues on TV and went to spring training games.

"There are always a bunch of kids running around for foul balls here, and we sit in the bullpen and wonder, "Why do you want to get that foul ball so bad?' Then we think back and remember we were the same when we were that age."

Dreaming of being a baseball player. And of fooling them with the change-up when they're looking for a fastball.