The last time the Wild Things’ Matt Sergey walked off the pitcher’s mound at Consol Energy Park, he was an emotional wreck.
The 25-year-old from Plantation, Fla., was grieving the untimely death of his good friend, Michael Hartley, earlier that day. It’s a subject that Sergey still can’t bring himself to talk about. Sergey, however, pitched one inning in relief in the Wild Things’ 3-1 loss to the River City Rascals that night and gave up one run on three hits.
Sergey took out his frustration after the game, taking the filled water cooler from the Wild Things’ bullpen and flinging it across right field and bellowing a loud scream.
Three days later, on a sun-baked Sunday afternoon, Sergey was proudly wearing the contents of that same water cooler. He was on the receiving end of a celebratory ice-and-water dousing after doing what no Frontier League pitcher has ever done.
Sergey, this time the picture of poise, confidence and composure, threw the first perfect game in the Frontier League’s 22-year history as the Wild Things defeated the Gateway Grizzlies, 6-0.
Twenty-seven Gateway batters stepped to the plate against Sergey (2-0), who was making only his fourth start for Washington after signing with the Wild Things as a free agent June 25. All 27 Grizzlies returned to the dugout without reaching first base.
Sergey struck out nine, including five in a row during a stretch early in the game.
There were a few nervous moments, such as an at-bat by Gateway’s Tommy Richards with one out in the top of the ninth. Richards, who was activated off the disabled list earlier in the day, drove a Sergey pitch high and deep to left field.
“When that left his bat, I knew it could go either way. My heart stopped for a moment,” Sergey said.
Washington left fielder Scott Kalamar raced back to the fence and looked up. But with a strong wind blowing from left field to center field, the ball hung up and Kalamar made the catch on the warning track, with about 10 feet to spare.
With the Consol Energy Park crowd on its feet, designated hitter Jimmy Obermark then grounded out on a slow roller to shortstop Ryan Kresky to complete the perfect game and set off a wild celebration near the mound.
“I had confidence in my defense. When you can hit your spots and get your defense to work with you … This is amazing,” Sergey told the crowd in a postgame interview.
He was then hit from behind with the contents of two water coolers.
It was the third no-hitter in Wild Things history and the first since Adam Palmer threw one in the second game of a doubleheader at Windy City in 2004. Jason Hickman threw the first no-hitter in the Wild Things’ inaugural season of 2002 at Kalamazoo.
But has anybody thrown a no-hitter, as Sergey did, with his 92-year-old grandmother in attendance? Sergey received an emotional on-field hug from his grandmother, Ned Harvey of Sarver, following his gem.
“This is a surreal moment in my life,” Sergey said. “A lot of people never get to experience a moment like this. I’ll never forget this. To have my grandmother here and some other family members, it’s special.”
Another interesting aspect of the performance was that it came against Gateway, a team Sergey played for last season and was released by during spring training this year.
“I had a good read on their hitters because I played with them in spring training,.” Sergey admitted. “I was trusting my catcher, Jim Vahalik, and my stuff.”
Sergey has always had impressive pitches. The knock on him was that he didn’t always throw enough of them for strikes. On this day, he didn’t walk a batter and needed only 100 pitches to record 27 outs. He changed speeds and was able to throw his breaking pitches for strikes, many of them on the inside corner against Gateway left-handed-heavy lineup.
“Matt did everything right. This was his night,” Gateway manager Phil Warren said. “I’m happy for him. With us, he struggled a bit. It’s good to see a guy go make the adjustments that are necessary and reap the benefits. … He could have packed it in when we released him, but that would have been disappointing because there’s too much to like about his ability.”
Washington gave Sergey all the support he would need when it scored two runs in the third inning against Gateway starter Daniel Cropper (6-8). Doubles by Garrett Rau, Kresky and Carter Bell during a four-batter stretch pushed across the two runs. Kresky was 3-for-3 and hit three of the Wild Things’ six doubles.
That was more than enough offense on this day. With each Gateway out, the crowd of 1,964 could sense what might happen and would get louder with its applause.
“I’m not a superstitious person,” Washington manager Bob Bozutto said, “but by the fifth inning, with the way Matt was throwing, I was getting superstitious. I started making sure my pens were arranged in the same order, that I was standing in the same spot. I noticed everybody was standing or sitting in the same spot every inning.”
By the middle of the eighth inning, Sergey knew he was on the brink of the biggest moment of his young career.
“The perfect game thing was in my head. I told myself that I have to control my breathing and stay on an even keel,” he said.
Sergey, who had a 2-4 record in 10 starts for Gateway last year, has pitched 12 times out of the bullpen for Washington. He had not pitched more than four innings in a game all year until Sunday. In his first start, against the Greys Aug. 4, he was taken out after pitching four no-hit innings.
“I think Matt was running out of gas in the sixth,” Bozzuto said. “Gateway hit two balls that inning to the warning track. The adrenaline, though, kicked in after that.”
Washington added single runs in the sixth and seventh to give Sergey a long break in the bottom of the innings. In the eighth, pinch-hitter Maxx Garrett and center fielder Andrew Heck hit solo home runs.
The win keeps Washington in sole possession of first place in the East Division, a half-game ahead of Southern Illinois and one game better than Evansville and Lake Erie.
For one night, though, the playoff race really didn’t matter to the Wild Things.
“Gateway had a couple of louds outs, but other than that Matt dominated,” Vahalik said. “They didn’t put many barrels on the ball.”