California H.S. Pitcher Takes Aim at Fifth Straight No-Hitter
John Kukuruda had never thrown a no-hitter before April 16.
He hasn't given up a hit since.
When Kukuruda takes the mound Tuesday for East Nicolaus High (Calif.) in the North Section Division IV baseball playoffs, he will be going for a fifth straight no-hitter, a California state record. Kukuruda currently has tied the state mark of four. The national record is six.
He has not given up a hit in 22 1/3 innings, with three of the four games ending early because of the mercy rule.
"I'm kind of in awe; it's really cool," the senior right-hander said. "It came out of nowhere. One day I felt really good and I threw the first no-hitter and then it's kept going for the next three games."
Kukuruda isn't over-analyzing what's happened. Things are going good, why question it?
"I feel confident in myself and my fielders and if anything gets hit to them, they'll get the ball and throw them out," Kukuruda said. "I wasn't hitting spots before and now I'm hitting them."
Spartans coach Dave Deniz is also keeping things simple when describing what has happened.
"He found the plate," Deniz said. "He started throwing strikes. Not only is he throwing more strikes, but he's not going so deep in the count."
Kukuruda -- who is 6-2 with a 1.65 ERA -- opened the season with 26 walks in his first 32 innings, Deniz said. He's walked six batters since.
During his no-hit streak, Kukuruda has 47 strikeouts against six walks and three hit batters.
Kukuruda is a first baseman when he's not on the mound and that's going pretty well too. He's hitting .438 with 30 RBIs.
At 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Kukuruda is a power pitcher, frequently throwing in the high-80s. The scouts have been showing up in droves since the season began. Deniz think those scouts unnerved Kukuruda early on.
After all, Kukuruda is relatively inexperienced. He threw just 16 innings last season. He wanted more for his final season of high school baseball and beyond. So he passed on playing varsity basketball last season to play with a Colorado Rockies scout team and worked with a trainer four hours a week to improve the velocity on his pitches.
Deniz estimates Kukuruda gained two-to-four miles per hour on his fastball.
It was no small sacrifice. Kukuruda would have been a starter on the varsity basketball team.
"Our team lost in the playoffs and if you ask every kid at this school what would have happened if John would have played, they would say we would have won," East Nicolaus athletic director Darren Brown said.
East Nicolaus High in Nicolaus, Calif. (north of Sacramento in Sutter County) is a "sports school", says Brown.
Despite its rural surroundings and a student population of 320, East Nicolaus fields 14 sports. There are two baseball fields and two softball fields.
The school fields junior varsity teams for baseball, softball and boys and girls basketball.
"We are the only team in our league with JV teams," Brown said. "When I'm making the schedule, trying to get these teams 15 or 20 games, I have to go outside the league."
But this is still a small community and Kukuruda's new fame has its reach. Teachers and classmates have been keeping up with his success. Articles are posted on classroom walls. ESPN was on campus last week. He's been doing interviews with national media as the team prepares for its postseason run. East Nicolaus is the No. 1 seed in its section tournament.
"You would think his head couldn't fit through the door," his father, John Kukuruda, Sr., said. "But he's given praise to his whole team. When someone compliments him, he just gives a big Johnny smile."
"He's a well-liked kid," Brown said. "It would be one thing for another type of kid to get all this attention, someone who is not doing what they need to do, but he's not one of those kids."
Deniz described Kukuruda as a quiet, even-keeled kid.
"Honestly, I can never really tell if he's having a good day or a bad day," Deniz said. "The whole family is the same way."
Kukuruda's older brothers Joe and Tim were baseball standouts at East Nicolaus. Both are playing college baseball.
John could be headed that way as well. He has garnered interest from Long Beach State and the University of San Francisco. He could also be headed for professional baseball.
Deniz said there's a good chance that he could be drafted out of high school.
"He hasn't thrown a lot," Deniz said. "He's got a pretty tall ceiling and a lot of upside."