Just a few batters into Branford’s season opener against Shelton, Hornets coach Ed Bethke knew it was going to be a long afternoon.
“He struck out two of the first three guys, and from that point you knew he was in a zone most kids don’t get into at that age,” Bethke said.
Shelton senior Mike Cowell hurled a no-hitter and struck out 15 in the Gaels’ 10-0 win. Cowell has lit up the Southern Connecticut Conference this season, is off to Fordham in the fall and major league scouts were on hand for his recent start against Amity.
“That kid could very well be the best pitcher in the state,” Amity coach Sal Coppola said after his team defeated Cowell and Shelton 7-4 on Wednesday. It was announced Monday the game would be restarted from 4-4 due to a misapplied balk call, erasing Cowell’s first loss from the books.
Amity had previously lost to Cowell as the Gaels starter struck out eight Spartans in a 4-1 victory on April 28. That game came on the heels of another strong Cowell performance, a 13-strikeout, nine-inning masterpiece in a victory over Xavier.
“He hits his spots,” said Xavier coach Nick Cerreta. “You’re swinging at pitcher’s pitches because he doesn’t leave anything up.”
He certainly didn’t leave anything up against Branford. It was Shelton’s first no-hitter since 1987 (Dave Adam) and Cowell’s 15 strikeouts were two shy of the school record, according to Shelton coach Scott Gura.
However, the only number that mattered to the senior was one.
“I wanted to start 1-0,” Cowell said. “That was the important thing for our team and it just so happened that I threw a no-hitter.”
And he’s been lights out ever since. In 39 innings of work he’s struck out 63 batters.
“That’s almost one and a half strikeouts per inning,” Gura said. “In seven innings that’s not putting the ball in play almost 13 to 14 times a game. That’s four innings of baseball where your fielders don’t have to field the ball.”
Cowell’s only given up seven runs — two earned — and one home run all season (prior to Monday’s game with Sheehan, in which he suffered his first official loss, 3-0).
He possesses a high-80s fastball, a sharp slider and a changeup to keep hitters off balance. He can throw all three pitches for strikes and said he has no fear when firing any of his pitches in.
“I think I can put balls in the zone and guys are going to make plays behind me,” he said.
If batters can make contact.
Cerreta said the only way to hit Cowell is to start your bat early and shorten up your swing. He said high school hitters may not have the bat speed to hit an 88-mph fastball, which can make it tough to string together quality at-bats. Still, batters can’t wait when they’re at the plate.
“Don’t be afraid to jump on a first-pitch fastball,” Cerreta said. “That might be the best pitch you see in the at-bat.”
Amity’s Matt Ronai managed to send an 0-2 fastball over the fence in center, but Cowell struck out 10 batters in the game and the dinger was wiped out after the game was successfully protested. Cowell said when he’s up in the count, he’s not afraid to let it fly.
“A lot of guys, whenever someone fouls a ball off, they go right to an off-speed pitch,” he said. “My fastball’s my best pitch; I like to elevate a lot.”
His confidence makes him tough to face, according to Bethke. And Cowell doesn’t waste time on the mound. Batters are frequently forced to ask the umpire for time, because Cowell is always ready to go to work.
“It’s hard to prepare for something like that,” Bethke said. “He’s got that bulldog mentality and he’s coming at you with his best. If you want to beat me, come beat me. It’s hard to prepare for somebody of that caliber at this level.”
And despite being a strikeout pitcher, Cowell’s pitch count doesn’t get out of hand. He’s only thrown more than 100 pitches once, according to Gura, when he tossed 126 in the victory over Amity.
It also didn’t hurt that Cowell added some muscle in the offseason, working with coach Manny Torres and the Technique Tigers baseball program. Cowell also lifted with his Shelton teammates and Gura said he’s playing baseball 10 months out of the year.
“I conditioned all winter to throw like this,” Cowell said.
That’s bad news for opponents. Still, Bethke has some advice for what batters should do when Cowell is in zone.
“Hope for the best.”