This is why we love baseball. On a cold, gray night in Chicago, two of baseball's most disappointing teams met in a game started by a pitcher off to a disappointing start.
Francisco Liriano entered Tuesday's game against the Chicago White Sox with a 9.13 ERA and more hits allowed than innings pitched. He had never pitched a complete game or a shutout at any level as a professional. No-hitter? Sitting in the cellar of the AL Central, already 10 games out of first place, the Minnesota Twins were just hoping for a good game from their 2010 ace. Yes, a win would probably be nice as well.
Liriano began the bottom of the ninth with a slim 1-0 lead. Helped by three double plays -- including a gift call at first base to end the eighth when Justin Morneau missed the tag on Gordon Beckham -- Liriano had thrown 101 pitches, 55 for strikes. Facing rookie third baseman Brent Morel leading off the inning, Liriano fell behind 3-1, but Morel swung at an inside 94-mph fastball and grounded a slow chopper to short. Matt Tolbert circled and threw a one-hopper that Morneau nicely scooped out of the dirt.
Against veteran Juan Pierre, Liriano again fell behind 3-1. Pierre showed the patience that Morel didn't, taking a 92-mph fastball on the outside corner for strike two. Catcher Drew Butera visited the mound, Liriano pulled off his cap and wiped his brow ... and then threw ball four.
Alexei Ramirez stepped in, swung at a changeup in the dirt, fouled off another change, took a ball up high and then hit a little looper to Tolbert. Yes, sawed off at the fists by a slider.
Liriano had thrown 117 pitches. He'd thrown more than that only once in his big league career.
Big Adam Dunn dug in at the plate and Liriano fell behind 3-0 with two fastballs and a slider. Dunn took a strike and then swung through a fastball on the inside corner. He barely fouled off a changeup that looked just off the outside corner. Liriano came in with what looked like a hanging 85-mph slider, or maybe an overthrown changeup, and Dunn drilled a line drive right to Tolbert.
The Twins mobbed Liriano, rubbing his shaved head at the mound, a rare celebration in their season of misery.
Afterward, Liriano said he wasn't expecting a no-hitter. "I was walking so many guys ... so I wasn't thinking about it all," he said.
He's right -- he walked six and struck out just two. Truth be told, he wasn't really dominating, like you envision for a no-hitter. Of the 21 nine-inning no-hitters since 2000 (including Roy Halladay's postseason no-no), Liriano's was the least impressive. Using the Bill James Game Score method, he scored an 83, lower than the 85 that Edwin Jackson scored last year (when he walked eight and fanned six) and A.J. Burnett's 85 in 2001 (nine walks, seven strikeouts). The last pitcher to throw a nine-inning no-hitter with just two strikeouts was the Dodgers' Jerry Reuss, in 1980. The last pitcher to throw a nine-inning no-hitter with a Game Score of 83 was Cliff "Lefty" Chambers, of the 1951 Pirates (he walked eight and struck out four). Lefty Chambers -- was he the last pitcher to actually go by "Lefty"? -- is apparently still alive, 89 years old.
So maybe it wasn't pretty. But Liriano had a zero in that hit column and I'm pretty sure if he lives to be 89 he'll always remember his first complete game. The Twins added a victory to the win column. And a Tuesday night in May provided a reminder that, in baseball, you can't predict anything.
Which is why we watch.