The secret to the No-Hit Kid from New Hampshire's success isn't his 12-to-6 curve. It isn't his one-fingered knuckle slider or his changeup. And it isn't the fastball that's been clocked as high as 89 mph—the pitch he puts "just under the hands" when he needs a strikeout.
No, when high school junior Brennen Oxford takes the mound Friday to go for his fifth consecutive no-hitter, the secret to how he got the first four will be hovering in the dugout near his Oyster River High (Durham, N.H.) teammates.
It's an 18-inch long toy—a wooden snake called a What' Zit that's made of interconnecting blocks, held together with a bungee cord—that cost $4.95 but has become a priceless amulet.
"I usually just sit that in the dugout fence and hope it doesn't hit the ground," Oxford tells B/R about the good-luck charm he simply calls "Dugout Snake."
"If it hits the ground, that's bad luck. And it has to be straight, too. Straight on the fence in the dugout, without hitting the ground."
In case you're wondering, Dugout Snake—bought on a lark at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts this spring on a school field trip—joined the team for Oxford's first no-hitter and has yet to hit the ground during a game.
He has struck out 46 batters and walked only 13 during that span. (The walks do not seem to be an issue, given that Oxford has picked off six runners this season.) In no-hitter No. 4, he fanned 13 batters over seven innings, according to Seacoastonline.com.
Overall, Oxford's hitless streak is at 30.2 innings.
He needs two more consecutive no-hitters to tie the high school record of six, set by Chris Taranto in 1961 and duplicated by Tom Engle in 1989.
Not that he's feeling the pressure.
"He loves life. He's a very happy kid. He loves to be a goofball," says his coach, Craig Walfield.
So his focus after no-hitter No. 4 was on the junior prom coming a few days later and the girlfriend featured beside him in his Twitter profile photo—not on catching Taranto and Engle.
Walfield says the no-hit streak, and the media attention that comes with it, actually hasn't been much of a distraction at all for Oxford or the team.
"He loves to talk," Walfield says. "He doesn't know when it's time to stop goofing off and let his coach talk. He's all boy—up and down and head to toe—he's all boy."
And the coach doesn't worry a bit about his pitcher's focus on the mound.
"When he steps across those white lines, he flips," Walfield says. "He's a completely different person. He's 100 percent focused. He's relentless. He doesn't give in to anyone."
"I just face every batter like they're trying to compete with me," Oxford says. "Like every at-bat's a competition."
His competitiveness finds its epicenter on the pitcher's mound but extends beyond the baseball diamond, too. The wooden snake is merely a recent addition to his lifelong quest of looking for an edge.
"I really hate losing," he says. "I get a little upset when I lose to people in card games. On a baseball field, it's the ultimate competition. I really change my mindset."
That said, if or when Oxford's streak ends—Friday's game may be pushed back due to bad weather—the pitcher will be just fine with it.
"It's not like if I don't throw a no-hitter the world's going to end. You give up hits and you still win," he says.
That attitude toward no-hitters may seem a bit nonchalant for those of us who haven't thrown any. They're "just something special that you can do on the mound. But it just doesn't happen all that often because hitters are so good," he says.
But not good enough, lately. And lucky for Oxford, Dugout Snake isn't his only trick.
Before each game, he also runs a full sprint across the field from the left field foul pole after spotting his catcher, Andrew St. Ours, a big lead.
"He'll take his time walking to the pole where the opposing team is warming up," Walfield says. "When he gets back, he'll give me a wink and ask if they were watching. 'Yeah. They were watching,' I tell him."
Oxford also takes one gulp of water, spits it out, then drinks the next gulp before each start.
During the games, a predictable pattern takes hold. Oxford tries his best to keep things loose among his teammates. Eventually, Oxford finds himself alone on the bench—always keeping an eye on Dugout Snake.
"We usually talk for five or six innings, but toward the seventh, they tend to leave me alone and not really talk to me much. [That] is kind of a double-edged swordplay because I know what's happening, everybody else knows what's happening, but we're not going to talk about it, which is kind of weird," he says.
So what does the future hold for this wunderkind and his good-luck rituals?
Physically, Oxford may add another inch in height and 15 to 20 pounds to his 6'2", 180-pound frame over the next year.
He's committed to play for Wake Forest, but as an outfielder. He sees himself as a center fielder more than a pitcher at this point, despite the success he's had.
"I've pretty much been pitching since I started playing baseball because I'm left-handed," he says. "Even though I didn't really know how to pitch as a young kid, they'd just pitch me cause I'm left-handed."
Oxford hasn't ruled out skipping college, though, if MLB comes calling.
He's gotten plenty of major league looks during his full summer schedule of AAU Baseball for the USA Mavericks, based out of nearby Newington.
"Everything I know about the kid is still early, but given he throws strikes, is left-handed and is a really good athlete, he's definitely going to be a guy to follow," one American League scout told ESPN's Brendan C. Hall. "He runs well. He swings the bat well. Those two things add value. For me, if they can hit and provide some form of athleticism, that keeps their arm pretty well."
Oxford turns 18 in November and is not MLB draft eligible until after he graduates. Any potential major league offer would have to be significant.
It's a subject that has been oft-discussed with his parents.
"They're going to pretty much let me make the best decision for myself," he says. "They've talked to me about what it would take to leave, go straight to attempting to be a major league player [rather than] going to college. And I think that we've talked about a pretty good mindset to have."
Whatever his decision, hopefully the plan includes buying more What' Zit snakes.