The last time Jason Hoppe let the other team score, more than seven weeks ago, Minnesota was still stuck in a one-of-a-kind winter.
Just a few more outs without a run, and the right-hander will have a lofty record for himself.
Hoppe has a streak of 51 2-3 scoreless innings that he'll take to the mound Thursday for Minnesota State in the NCAA Division II baseball tournament. The single-season college mark is 54, set in 2006 by Kyle Jones of SIU-Edwardsville.
Not that this has been a constant topic of conversation among the Mavericks.
"They don't really like talking about it too much, and neither do I, but it's something that gets brought up every once in a while," Hoppe said.
That included on the bus after MSU beat Grand Valley State Saturday with the most recent of four shutouts by the lanky junior. Hoppe's streak was trending on Twitter.
Baseball is perhaps the most superstitious of all the sports, but the primary reason for the nonchalance is what's at stake for the team. With a win Thursday, the Mavericks will advance to the national championship game for the first time in program history. They took third last year.
"I've still got one game to throw here for us, and that's really all that's on my mind at this point," Hoppe said in a phone interview from North Carolina, where the tournament is taking place.
The NCAA career record is in sight for Hoppe, too: George Plender pitched 60 consecutive scoreless innings for Vermont, starting in 1954 and ending the following season.
Then there's Orel Hershiser, who captivated the country in 1988 when he pitched 59 consecutive scoreless innings, a September streak that helped spur the Los Angeles Dodgers to the World Series title that year. Hoppe was almost four years from being born when Hershiser was cruising through those National League lineups.
Hoppe, whose ERA is 1.03 with 94 strikeouts over 87 2-3 innings, last allowed a run allowed a run in the first inning of his start on April 7 against Augustana. In MSU's 1-0 victory in 14 innings over Missouri Southern in the Central Region playoffs on May 16, Hoppe completed 10 2-3 scoreless innings.
"It's almost like you expect it," said coach Matt Magers, who turned Hoppe loose for 131 pitches that night.
Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton has the NCAA Division I record with 47 consecutive scoreless innings, mostly as a closer for Tennessee in 1994.
"I didn't even know I was doing anything. I was just out there pitching," Helton said Thursday. "I think that there's some luck involved. There were plenty of times when I got close to being scored upon and whatever happened, it didn't work out for the other team. But that's still pretty impressive of him to get up to that many innings."
Hoppe isn't the only force behind MSU's push for a title. Senior right-hander Harvey Martin has helped form quite the dominant duo, and with 11 weather-canceled games this season the extra rest allowed them to pitch a greater percentage of the team's games. There's a deft defense around the diamond behind them, of course, and sophomore catcher Nolan Johnson has made wise decisions behind the plate.
"Ninety percent of the time when I shake him off, it's a base hit. Or a double. And I'm like, `OK, Nolan knows what he's doing back there,'" Hoppe said.
That wasn't exactly the case with Hoppe when he arrived on campus in Mankato, the river-meets-prairie city where the NFL's Vikings hold their training camp about 90 miles southwest of Minneapolis. Recruited by only a handful of small schools in the region, Hoppe showed up as a freshman with a long locks and a big attitude.
"We considered him a skateboard kid," Magers said. "He showed up with long hair down to his shoulders. He's 6-foot-1 and 150 pounds. But all of a sudden this kid stepped on the mound and his arm started working."
Hoppe quickly chopped off his hair and got serious about developing his skills.
"You're the best player on your high school team. You come into college, and you're like, `Wow, I'm middle of the pack to below the pack. So I really have to do something here to get some playing time,'" he said.
Two years later, the Mavericks don't want to take him off the mound. Hoppe is now pitching at 170 pounds, hoping to add 15 more for his senior year. With a fastball that can hit 92 mph and impeccable control of a changeup and curveball he can regularly throw for strikes when he's behind in the count, he has the makings of a professional prospect.
"That's been my dream since day one, to play pro baseball the rest of my life," Hoppe said.
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