As he warmed up in the bullpen during Lincoln (Pa.)’s season opener against Urbana, sophomore left-hander Marcos Castillo was mostly oblivious to the particulars of the game. He knew only that starter Terence Berry was struggling – though the fifth-year senior managed to work out of several jams and stay in the game.
Berry finally gave way to Castillo to start the sixth inning, and after Castillo recorded the first out, Berry got to thinking: He didn’t recall Urbana getting any hits.
“So I asked our scorekeeper … and he said, ‘Yeah. They don’t have a hit right now,’ ” Berry said.
Castillo, too, became suspicious when he came to the bench after setting the Blue Knights down in the sixth and his teammates barely acknowledged him.
“Nobody said a word to me,” Castillo said. “They gave me high-fives and stuff, but they didn’t say much about it.”
There was plenty to say an inning later. When Castillo induced cleanup hitter Zeth Tanner to ground out to shortstop Michael Howard for the final out, the celebration was on.
“After the very last out, everybody was really excited,” Castillo said, “and they came out and said, ‘You just completed a no-hitter!’ I looked at the book, and I really completed the no-hitter.”
The 7-0 victory was significant for a couple of reasons besides the no-hitter.
First, it marked the completion of Berry’s comeback from Tommy John surgery. The Dover, N.J., native had the surgery in 2015 and was hopeful he could return for the ’16 season. He made it back briefly, but it was clear he still wasn’t back to normal.
With another entire offseason to get stronger, Berry came back ready for 2017. His performance against Urbana wasn’t necessarily pretty, evidenced by the seven walks he issued in his five innings on the hill, but his skill and veteran savvy carried him through.
In the second inning, he had men on second and third with one out but got a strikeout and a groundout to quell the threat. He put two men on via a walk and a hit batsman to start the third but then struck out the side.
Berry was effusive in his praise for his teammates in the aftermath of the no-hitter. He credited catcher Gabriel Santiago for calling a good game and trusting his pitches. He lauded his defense for making plays behind him. And he was impressed by the poise of the Lions’ young players, whom he said were talking to him and encouraging him “as if they had been here for four years already.”
“Having that feeling and watching them make sure we made the right plays was great,” Berry said. “They helped me execute our game plan also. Everything kind of fell into place.”
Berry reserved at least a little credit for himself.
“I just went out there ready to throw, trying to get the ball over the plate and get as many outs as I can,” he said. “Luckily, they didn’t put the ball in play.
“It means a lot. It means that anything is possible. It means hard work can get you anywhere. Yeah, Tommy John set me back a little bit, but I was definitely determined and was willing to sacrifice a lot of things that came with trying to get back to my full potential.”
Berry struck out nine in five innings against Urbana, and his performance did not go unnoticed by others around baseball. On Wednesday, Berry was named National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Atlantic Region Pitcher of the Week.
It is the first such honor earned by a Lincoln pitcher in the program’s Division II era.
“You could see from last year that he was just itching to get on the field,” Castillo said. “He couldn’t wait to get his first start and his first appearance. We knew he was going to be our guy. But for him to go out there and have a performance on Day 1 like that, it was just great to see, especially for someone who works so hard.”
Perhaps even more significant was the win marked the first in an opener for Lincoln since it became a full-fledged Division II program in 2010. The Lions backed that up with a 5-4 win in the second game of the doubleheader and were 2-1 heading into Friday’s doubleheader with Nyack.
The 2-0 start was a big step, especially given the Lions won only two games all season in 2014.
Wins have been hard to come by for Lincoln. The Lions entered the season with a 31-188 record in their Division II era and never have won more than seven games in a season.
The transition has been difficult, to be sure, but coach Anthony Pla said he believes the Lions are beginning to turn a corner. Starting the year the way it did, Pla said, only gives the team more confidence.
“It’s a new season, a new year, and we’re leaving everything in the past,” said Pla, who has coached all but one season of the Lions’ Division II era. “The program is now a program. There was no baseball culture here at all. Now we’re getting recognized by more people.
“We still have a lot of baseball to play, but our goal is to make the conference championship every year, and that’s our goal again this year.”
Lincoln’s new attitude isn’t lost on Castillo. Though just a sophomore, he said he can see a big difference between the 2016 team and the ’17 version.
“I think this could be the start of something new for our program,” he said. “It’s just an attitude as a whole. Last year when I was a freshman, the older guys, they tried to step it up a little bit, but I think it was a little too late. But this year, from Day 1 in the fall, everyone was on the same page. Everyone knew what was going on.”
For a team that has averaged fewer than five wins per season over the past seven years, talking about a conference championship might sound ludicrous. But that’s exactly what Lincoln is doing.
The Lions play in the CIAA with perennial power Winston-Salem State and Chowan, which ended WSSU’s five-year reign as CIAA champions last spring.
Lincoln players and coaches, however, are undaunted. With a mix of seniors intent on putting the past to rest and youngsters playing beyond their years, the Lions are confident the no-hitter can be the start of something big.
“Day-in and day-out, whenever we leave the locker room, we make sure we say, ‘Win the conference,’ ” Berry said. “Granted, we don’t play conference teams on a daily basis, but every day is just like a conference game, and we need to win the day.”
Chuck Curti is a contributing writer for BlackCollegeNines.com. He is a copy editor and writer for the Tribune-Review and Triblive.com (Greensburg/Pittsburgh, Pa.).