BARNEGAT – The tales are Bunyanesque every time Barnegat’s (N.J.) Jason Groome takes the mound at this point.
There was a 97-mph fastball straight into a stiff spring breeze.
A knee-buckling curveball that broke all the way from one side of the plate to the other.
A 10-pitch, three-strikeout inning.
And a no-hitter in which he struck out 19, throwing 91 pitches in facing the minimum 21 batters over seven innings.
And the one Central Regional player who reached base on an error?
Groome picked him off first.
And it’s all true. I swear. Saw it with my own eyes, as the lore surrounding a 17-year-old left-hander who looks more and more like the first pick in June’s Major League Baseball Draft continues to grow.
“Nothing he does surprises me,’’ said Barnegat coach Dan McCoy after his team’s 6-0 win. “He threw a game like this in a state final when he was a sophomore. I’m surprised when someone actually makes contact with the ball.’’
As the top of the sixth inning was playing out, McCoy nervously looked at the counter in his hand constantly, with Groome on a 75-pitch limit. The count was 78 when the inning ended.
It’s fine line between protecting the arm of a high school player looking at a signing bonus that could approach $7 million in a few months, and the will of a kid who just wants to put his name in the record book at a school where no one’s ever hurled a no-hitter.
Pitch count be damned. There was no way Groome wasn’t walking out to the mound for the seventh inning.
“I’m pretty excited,’’ Groome said. “It’s the first one in Barnegat history. I almost had one my freshman year against Central. My pitch count was set at 75, and when I came in I was told I was at 78. I told (McCoy) I wanted to go the distance. I knew I could do it.’’
And he did, striking out the side for the fifth time in the game, with the radar guns of the assembled scouts catching his fastball at 92 or 93 mpg in his final inning.
“We’re not being reckless with him,’’ said McCoy. “This kid trains hard. He could throw 100 pitches in a start. He’s a horse, and he did this easily today.’’
For the record, Groome has now thrown 11 innings in his two starts, giving up just one hit — an absolute bleeder to the opposite field that slithered through the right side of the infield — while striking out 29 of a possible 33 batters.
In the middle of all this is McCoy, who finds himself trying to manage both a budding superstar and a team that’s actually pretty good, as the Bengals improved to 3-1 on the season.
“It’s not always that easy, but Jason makes it easy,’’ McCoy said.
There weren’t quite as many scouts and Major League Baseball executives gathered around the field as there were last Tuesday for Groome’s first start of the season, but there were more fans for this one.
Those numbers only figure to grow.
Groome takes the mound again on Saturday night when Barnegat travels to face Red Bank Catholic in an Autism Awareness Challenge showdown.
And who knows what feats he’ll perform at Count Basie Field. Because the tales get harder and harder to believe if you aren’t seeing them with your own eyes.