“I always have a couple of pitchers that I sit by and talk to throughout the game just to break my focus when we’re not out in the field,” the 21-year-old Kirk said. “About the fifth or sixth inning, everyone just kind of disappeared around me.”
Kirk soon understood why.
The left-hander and Peoria Chiefs ace realized that he was pitching a no-hitter. The only question was whether he’d get to finish it due to his pitch count.
Kirk did, throwing 101 pitches in a complete-game, 2-0 shutout victory over the Clinton LumberKings at Peoria's O'Brien Field.
It was the first no-hitter of his professional career and the first by a Chiefs pitcher since Nick Struck hurled a five-inning, rain-shortened no-hitter that came against the LumberKings in April, 2010.
Kirk struck out a season-high 10 batters Monday and walked only two – one of which came in the top of the first inning to lead off the game.
He would go on to retire all but three of the 28 batters he faced.
Happy Fourth of July, indeed.
“I came out (Monday) feeling good with my fastball and was able to locate that in and out, and also I was able to throw my curveball for a strike,” said Kirk, who improved to 5-5 with a 2.60 ERA in his 17th appearance of the season.
“I came out and was doing great and was just trying to be aggressive in the zone.”
According to Chiefs broadcaster Nathan Baliva, Kirk’s best pitch was his curveball.
“He was throwing his curve for strikes,” said Baliva. “When he wanted to throw it out of the zone as a chase pitch, that was working as well. When he has his off-speed stuff going, he’s going to keep guys off because he’s got such a tight curveball and he was able to feed off that.
“He and (catcher) Sergio Burruel really seemed like they were in sync all night long. Sergio said when they were throwing in the bullpen pre-game, it didn’t look like he had the greatest of stuff, but his last four or five pitches were really good so he thought he might have a really good game.”
Kirk noted two key plays from his defense that helped him keep the no-hitter intact.
Left fielder Greg Rohan made a nice diving stop on a line-drive into the left field corner in the third inning.
Later on, Matt Szczur ran down a ball in the left-center gap in the fifth.
“The defense helped out a lot,” Kirk said.
Back in 2009, Kirk threw two no-hitters during his senior season at Owasso High School in Oklahoma en route to being tabbed with the Cubs’ third-round selection that year.
He spent the next two summers between the Northwest League at Boise and the Cubs’ rookie league squad in Arizona before becoming a Midwest League All-Star this season.
But he came into Monday’s game on the heels of a three-game losing streak that included a loss to Wisconsin at Milwaukee’s Miller Park in his most recent outing and said he knew he needed to rebound in Monday’s start.
By the time he got LumberKings centerfielder Mike McGee to pop up to first base to end the game, he’d more than succeeded on that front.
“I’d kind of lost the feel for my curveball the past few games,” Kirk recalled. “This past bullpen session, I really worked with my pitching coach (Jeff Fassero) and got it back.
“Right now it’s a really big pitch for me because I’m still trying to develop a changeup. It’s something I’ve been working on a lot, but it’s not there yet. A lot of times, I’m mainly throwing fastballs. If I don’t have my curve, it might be a tough night for me.”
Not this night.