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Kingham takes perfecto into 7th, wins debut

Righty strikes out nine in first MLB start as Pirates sweep Cardinals
MLB.com @adamdberry

PITTSBURGH -- Steve Blass walked into the Pirates clubhouse on Sunday morning, made a quick right turn and found Nick Kingham sitting in front of his locker. Blass, the Pittsburgh pitcher turned broadcaster, shook Kingham's hand and gave the 26-year-old some advice a few hours before his Major League debut: "Be yourself."

Kingham has learned a lot about himself since the Pirates drafted him eight years ago out of Sierra Vista High School in Las Vegas. A lot of his education took place over the past three years. He was on the cusp of reaching the Majors in 2015, but Tommy John surgery delayed his arrival. He worked his way back in 2016, returned to Triple-A in 2017 and went back this spring when he didn't crack Pittsburgh's rotation.

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PITTSBURGH -- Steve Blass walked into the Pirates clubhouse on Sunday morning, made a quick right turn and found Nick Kingham sitting in front of his locker. Blass, the Pittsburgh pitcher turned broadcaster, shook Kingham's hand and gave the 26-year-old some advice a few hours before his Major League debut: "Be yourself."

Kingham has learned a lot about himself since the Pirates drafted him eight years ago out of Sierra Vista High School in Las Vegas. A lot of his education took place over the past three years. He was on the cusp of reaching the Majors in 2015, but Tommy John surgery delayed his arrival. He worked his way back in 2016, returned to Triple-A in 2017 and went back this spring when he didn't crack Pittsburgh's rotation.

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But he finally got the call on Sunday and delivered an unforgettable start in his long-awaited debut. Kingham carried a perfect game into the seventh inning, struck out nine over seven scoreless innings and picked up his first big league win in the Pirates' 5-0 victory, their fifth straight, over the Cardinals at PNC Park.

Video: STL@PIT: Kingham discusses his almost perfect debut

For Kingham, the wait was worth it.

"Some downs make you realize who you are. The ups make you remember where you came from," Kingham said. "It's not how I drew it up when I signed eight years ago. It made me who I am. I'm here now. Hopefully, we can keep this train rolling."

These 20 rookies had the best debuts in history

Kingham will travel with the Pirates to Washington, he said, but it's not clear what role he will play. Whatever comes next, it will be hard for him to top his debut.

He retired the first 20 batters he faced -- an expansion-era record for a pitcher making his debut, according to the Elias Sports Bureau -- before Paul DeJong slapped a two-out single to left field in the seventh, ending Kingham's bid for history.

Video: STL@PIT: Kingham loses perfecto on DeJong's single

Before that, Kingham pounded the strike zone and kept the Cardinals lineup off-balance all afternoon. He faced 22 hitters and got ahead of 15 of them with a first-pitch strike, and 72 of his 98 pitches were strikes. His fastball command set up a devastating new slider. He threw 32 sliders, according to Statcast™, and St. Louis swung and missed on 12 of them.

"It's not tough to catch," said catcher Elias Diaz, Kingham's batterymate dating back to their time in the Gulf Coast League in 2010. "It's tough to hit."

Kingham began throwing that slider only a month ago, after he was sent out of big league Spring Training. He went to work in Minor League camp, introducing his new offspeed weapon and treating every at-bat as if it were against Major League competition. That might explain the poise that Kingham displayed in his debut.

"The way that he acted today, he's been like that for all his career," Diaz said. "He thinks that he is the best. He likes to look pretty. That's him."

Kingham was prepared for Sunday. He watched 10 Cardinals games, he said, in the four days since he learned he would make the spot start. Still, how could he have felt no butterflies, no first-start jitters? Well, he did.

"I was nervous, yeah, no doubt. But it's good to be nervous. That means I care," Kingham said. "That just made my intentions a little bit more heightened -- not more serious, but just handled everything a little more carefully."

For 6 2/3 innings, he was perfect -- something he realized after the fourth inning. First baseman Josh Bell said his teammates took notice around the third or fourth, too. Kingham lost his perfect-game bid when DeJong slapped a slider down the left-field line, out of third baseman Colin Moran's reach.

Video: STL@PIT: Hurdle on Kingham's perfecto bid in 5-0 win

"It was fun playing behind that," Bell said. "Everyone's kind of looking around like, 'OK, we've got to start leaping and diving for everything.' … It was tough seeing him miss out on it at the end there, but he still pitched a hell of a game."

Recognizing his effort, the home crowd responded with a lengthy ovation before Kingham retired Marcell Ozuna, the righty's final out of the day. Fans stood and cheered again as Kingham walked off the field. He waved and received a warm welcome in the Pirates dugout.

"It was incredible," Kingham said. "This is what the city's known for. They love their sports. They support their guys. I felt it today, so I appreciate it."

Kingham's fiancee and family, including parents Don and Roxane, were part of the announced crowd of 14,378 at PNC Park. His brother, Nolan, pitched for the University of Texas on Friday night against West Virginia University in Morgantown, about 90 minutes south of Pittsburgh.

Video: STL@PIT: Kingham's father, brother talk Nick's debut

"For them to be here, it was awesome," Kingham said. "Dream come true."

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
After six perfect innings, all Kingham needed was a lead. Diaz helped deliver that as the Bucs broke out for four runs in the sixth. Starling Marte and Bell each singled, and Corey Dickerson walked to load the bases. Diaz continued his outstanding start offensively -- he's batting .484 with a 1.207 OPS -- by hitting a tie-breaking, two-run single to right field.

Video: STL@PIT: Diaz drives in two with a single to right

Moran added to Pittsburgh's lead with an RBI single to center, and Kingham walked to load the bases with two outs. Reliever Jordan Hicks then plunked Adam Frazier, forcing in a run.

SOUND SMART
Based on Game Score, Kingham's start (89) was the best Major League debut in the past 20 years and among the 22 best in MLB history.

Kingham is the second pitcher in the past 100 years to allow one hit, with no walks and at least nine strikeouts in his Major League debut. But Kingham became the first to do it without allowing a run, as Johnny Cueto permitted one in his debut on April 3, 2008.

This is the first time in franchise history that the Pirates have won 17 games by the end of April. This was also the Pirates' first sweep of the Cardinals since their season-opening series in 2016.

HE SAID IT
"Everything you need to write about, you saw on the mound. Strikes. Aggressive. Secondary pitches. Angle down. Efficient. Watching him, it was just his next start. It had to be more than that. He compartmentalized very well."-- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, on Kingham

Tweet from @Bharper3407: Another Vegas kid making his stamp on the game! Congrats to @NickKingham on an absolutey stellar debut! Happy for you big man🙌

"Everybody was avoiding me. I was by myself. I'm trying to talk to everybody, and they didn't want anything to do with me."-- Kingham, on his teammates' reaction in the dugout during his perfect-game bid

UP NEXT
Jameson Taillon will try to snap his two-start skid as the Pirates begin a four-game series at Nationals Park on Monday. Taillon has allowed 12 runs in 5 1/3 innings over his past two outings, both losses. He will face Nats right-hander Tanner Roark at 7:05 p.m. ET.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

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