No-hitters are rare in professional baseball, no matter the level. What’s even rarer is a pitcher not getting the chance to finish it off.
But on May 18, Jake Junis found himself in that unenviable predicament. After tossing eight innings of no-hit ball against Hagerstown, the Rock Falls native and Class A Lexington hurler did not get the ball for the final three outs.
“I kind of knew it was coming,” said Junis of getting the hook, “because it was early in the season, and the pitch counts are much stricter. There wasn’t much use fighting it, because they take pitch counts pretty serious, but I absolutely would have loved just the chance to go back out there and finish what I started.”
Instead, reliever Matt Alvarez gave up a hit but still picked up the save in a 1-0 victory, and Junis was stoked to finish with six strikeouts and just one walk in an eight-inning no-hitter.
He was also thrilled with the reception he received from a select few fans in the stands.
“It was an extra special thing, because my family and girlfriend were at the game,” Junis said. “It’s one of the only times they’ve been able to see me all year, and I told them they had to keep coming back because they’re my good-luck charm.”
Junis, who was “afraid to look at the scoreboard until I came out of the game,” has not missed a step in his promotion to high Class A out of spring training. He served as the opening day starter for the Lexington Legends, and leads the South Atlantic League in innings pitched with 107.
Now in his third season playing pro ball in the Royals organization, Junis has started 38 of his 39 games, and has 152 strikeouts in 201 1/3 innings pitched in stints in rookie ball, low Class A and high Class A.
He says making the move up this season was aided by the fact that several of his good friends from low Class A were also promoted, increasing the comfort level with his teammates and in the town of Lexington, Ky.
But he credits a stringent offseason workout regimen and healthier diet with his success on the mound.
“I worked really hard last offseason with Dave Janssen, put together a great program during the winter to make me a lot stronger,” Junis said. “I took my eating habits more seriously, and got my body in really good shape; that’s helped get my velocity up and my endurance up.
“And once I started well right out of the gate, that built my confidence, and I’ve just rolled from there.”
The big key once he got into the season has been keeping a consistent routine. Rain delays and the Class A All-Star break have limited him to just one start since July 4 – he’lll make his next start tonight at home against Charleston – but he’s done his best to stick to the same schedule between starts.
“I just try to do the same thing, no matter how far apart my starts are,” said Junis, who had been starting every fifth game before the recent lull. “I work out two times between each start, get my bullpen sessions in every week, and go through the same throwing program everyday.”
What he doesn’t miss as much during the day-to-day grind is playing a position. A standout shortstop and hitter during high school, Junis admitted that he really missed taking grounders and getting in his cuts the first couple of years in the minor leagues.
“But now, not as much,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll pick up a bat now, swing it a couple times, and tell myself it’s time to put it back down again.”
Junis is on an innings limit, though he hasn’t yet heard what that limit is. He doesn’t think he’ll make it all the way to the end of the season, but is also unsure what will happen when the organization shuts him down. He said he’ll either stay with the team and continue his in-season workouts, or head home and start his offseason regimen again.
He plans to do many of the same things he did last winter, though he wants to start throwing earlier next spring to get his arm as ready as his body was last year.
“It’s a learning experience, just like last year was a learning experience for this year,” Junis said. “Every offseason is a little bit different, and I’m still figuring out exactly what works best for me.
“I just want to keep getting stronger, keep getting better at what I do, which is throwing a baseball. I’m going to do as much as I can, learn as much as I can, and keep trying to go out and get the job done.”
High school: Rock Falls, class of 2011
Drafted: 29th round of the 2011 MLB Draft by the Royals
2014 stats: 8-4, 3.70 ERA in 19 games (19 starts), 107 IP, 51 R, 44 ER, 102 H, 74 SO, 30 BB
Career stats: 12-12, 4.87 ERA in 39 games (38 starts), 201.3 IP, 130 R, 109 ER, 226 H, 151 SO, 52 BB
FYI: Passed up a scholarship to N.C. State to turn pro. … Has moved up a level in each of his three seasons, going from rookie ball (2012) to low Class A (2013) to high Class A (2014).