Justin Verlander very nearly pulled off a no-hitter against the Pirates, which would have been his third career no-hitter. Two outs shy of the feat, the Pirates’ Josh Harrison waved his bat in time to flick a soft liner up the middle, thwarting the top gun’s bid for history.
If Verlander had pulled it off, he would have joined a very short list of people with more than two career no-nos, a select group populated by just five other men in baseball history: Nolan Ryan (seven), Sandy Koufax (four), and Cy Young, Bob Feller and Larry Corcoran with three apiece.
On a visceral level, it’s a group he belongs to, but it’s also one that might really become just a list of two men before Verlander’s done with it. Not because Verlander’s a 100 percent lock to throw another no-no (although these days, would you bet against him?). Rather, as a matter of his ability in the face of a time when -- even if you consider this “Year of the Pitcher 3,” even while strikeouts are at all-time highs -- it still isn’t that easy to dominate, not like this. But before all is said and done, it shouldn’t surprise anybody if the top of this list might be just Nolan Ryan and Justin Verlander before Verlander is done with it.
That isn’t meant to take anything from the other men on this list. However, as a matter of simple fact, they were competing at different times, confronting very different challenges in very different competitive environments. Corcoran was throwing from 10 feet closer to home plate, back under the old pre-60-feet-6-inches rules in the 19th century, and in all-white leagues. Cy Young was pitching during the dead ball era, when he was throwing something dark, lumpy, and vaguely baseball-ish. Feller threw two of his no-hitters before integration -- a cause that he bravely championed before it was an accomplished fact -- was at long last achieved. Koufax had the high mound of the 1960s going for him, and that plus the Dodgers’ move to pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium helped him as he mastered his incredible talents for overpowering people.
Pitching in today’s game, Verlander doesn’t have any of those things going for him, any more than Ryan did during his remarkable career. Take it from somebody stupefied as a youngster that Mike Warren had no-hit the White Sox back in 1983: You can’t predict no-hitters from anyone. But if Verlander was to add one, let alone two no-hitters on his career, wouldn’t that seem like a matter of his talent delivering its due?
On the other hand, Verlander is pitching at a time when there are other advantages and disadvantages. Interleague play gives you a shot at pitching to opponents who might only know you from spring-training scrimmages and "Baseball Tonight" highlights. Only four Pirates in Friday night’s lineup had ever faced Verlander in a game that counted: Andrew McCutchen, Casey McGehee, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones.
Also, it probably didn’t hurt Verlander any that this was an interleague game. The extent to which some teams are less ready than others for interleague play might be best reflected in their lineup choices. Going up against Verlander, who was the Pirates' designated hitter? None other than Harrison, who came into the game with a .256/.275/.436 line on the year. In an increasingly desperate yet fruitless pursuit of runs, the Bucs have sat Opening Day left fielder Alex Presley, on the off-chance that getting journeymen McGehee and Jones into the lineup simultaneously will help matters. You can’t really blame Verlander for mowing the Pirates down; pitting Pittsburgh against one of baseball’s best starters has “historic result” potential any written all over it.
But even saying that takes nothing away from Verlander. The Pirates are a big league team, and it isn’t like anyone in their lineup clearly doesn’t belong in the major leagues. McGehee had homered off Verlander before; McCutchen had ripped a couple of doubles.
Those four Pirates who had faced Verlander before were a combined 5-for-14 against him coming in -- and fat lot of good that did them, because he was on. Even in an age armed with advanced scouting and video-enhanced batting cages for virtual at-bats, when a guy this good is on, let’s face it, you’re off. And knowing all that we do about how hard it is to no-hit anybody even once, that's as beautiful a thing as the diamond can give us, on this or any night.
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