Hardball at its best

It's not often that you get a chance to witness a no-hitter in the flesh. Five years ago I saw Jose Jimenez no-hit the Diamondbacks, and that evening ranks among the best of my life.

I had a full evening of baseball planned Monday. First, a high school playoff game between the Lake Oswego Lakers and the Wilson (Portland, Ore.) Trojans, followed by the Portland Beavers hosting the Omaha Royals. I wanted to see Lake Oswego because its starter was Mike Stutes, who 1) is maybe the best high school pitcher in the Portland area, and 2) I met a week ago at Bill Mooney's BioForce Baseball Academy. Seemed like a good kid, though if he's 6-foot-1 (as listed by Lake Oswego) then I'm Little Bo Peep. I wanted to see the O-Royals because David DeJesus and Calvin Pickering are regularly in the lineup, and also because Beavers radio broadcaster Rich Burk occasionally allows me to come on the air and provide "color."

It was gorgeous in Portland, but Mike Stutes was better. In the top of the first inning, he struck out all three hitters he faced. In the bottom of the first inning, he hit a long home run. In the second inning, he struck out the side (but did walk two Trojans). Early on, Stutes overmatched his 17- and 18-year-old opponents with low-90s fastballs. Later, he switched to his curveball and overmatched them with that, too.

After six innings -- they play only seven in high school -- Stutes had already set a personal record with 16 strikeouts, and the only balls in play were a grounder to shortstop and a fly ball to fairly deep right-center. No hits.

And that's when I left. Big lead (8-0), more playoff games coming up, pitch count in the 80s (by our estimate; I meant to count them myself, but forgot). Add everything up, and the feeling in my little neck of the bleachers was that Mike wouldn't be allowed to pitch the seventh. So I left for the next game, knowing full well that I was giving up the chance of seeing a no-hitter for the certainty of seeing Doug Linton pitch.

When I got home, this e-mail message from Bill Mooney was waiting for me ...

Mike went out in the seventh, struck out the first two batters, and had the third batter 1-2.

The next pitch was a fastball and the hitter swung and ...

... ground ball to third for the last out. No-hitter. 18 strikeouts.

So I missed it. I did arrive at PGE Park 25 minutes before the first pitch, and in plenty of time to see Doug Linton surrender a couple of long home runs to Beavers outfielder Jon Knott. I'm not sure if there's a lesson here. I've always been sort of hyper-punctual, usually arriving early to avoid the possibility of arriving late. But a part of me will always wish I'd seen the look on Mike Stutes' face when he finished pitching the greatest game of his life (so far).



    Back in February you wrote an article about possible surprise teams in 2004. You quickly dismissed "three teams in the NL Central" as possibly being a surprise. I e-mailed you then and stated that the Reds would surprise many people, and happily I have been right so far. What about you and the rest of the baseball world? Are they surprising people or do most writers think it is only a matter of time until they find their rightful place in the cellar.

    By the way, they have the best record in the NL as I am writing this and it is almost June.

    -- Paul Rich

First off, I don't think many writers consigned the Reds to the cellar, exactly. Most of us reserved that spot for the Brewers or the Pirates. But it's certainly true that nobody thought the Reds would be in first place in late May, let alone sporting the best record in the league (and the third-best in the majors).

In retrospect (and everything's easy in retrospect), I should have at least mentioned the Reds as a possible surprise. Why? Because if you can score runs you've got at least a chance to be competitive, and the Reds obviously had a chance to score some runs, especially if Ken Griffey Jr. could stay in the lineup.

Why don't I think the Reds are really the class of the Central? Here are the Central teams ranked by +/- run differential:

RS-RA Diff
Astros 238-186 +52
Cubs 210-163 +47
Cards 214-197 +17
Reds 211-211 0
Brewers 207-209 - 2
Pirates 182-185 - 3

You know what's really interesting about those numbers? They fall almost exactly in line with the projected standings before the season. And while run differentials don't always tell the whole story, they usually tell most of it. By the middle of August, this will be a two-team race, and the winner will be the one with healthy starting pitchers (granted, right now the Astros are leading that particular competition).

Speaking of which, Mike Stutes wound up throwing something like 120 pitches Monday. That's more than I would have let him throw, but it could have been a lot worse. On May 11, a high school junior named Lance Lynn, who's 6-foot-6 and throws 90 miles an hour, came down with a "stiff arm" after throwing 189 pitches in a regular-season game. His coach, Pat O'Neil, wasn't concerned. "Lance is a bulldog on the mound," O'Neil said. "In a close game he doesn't want to be taken out. So if it's 100 pitches or 140 pitches, that's fine with him." Or 180, or 200.

As Bill Mooney said when I told him about Lance Lynn, "That coach should be arrested."

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.