Nolan Ryan owns many distinctions from his brilliant career. He has the most strikeouts ever. He is the greatest power pitcher ever. He is the hardest pitcher to hit in the game's history. And he threw the most no-hitters in the game's history, with seven.
Which means he was asked the following question more times than any pitcher: Do you think you can throw back-to-back no-hitters?
Johnny Vander Meer is the only pitcher to throw no-hitters in consecutive starts -- he did it on June 11 and June 15, 1938, exactly 75 years ago. But six times -- four times more than anyone in history -- Ryan had a chance to equal Vander Meer. Ryan's best chance came on July 19, 1973.
He was coming off his second career no-hitter, a 17-strikeout masterpiece in Detroit four days earlier. That was the game in which Tigers first baseman Norm Cash, who had struck out in his first three at-bats, walked to the plate in the ninth inning holding a table leg instead of a bat. Home plate umpire Ron Luciano asked Cash why he had brought a table leg, and Cash said, "Why not? I won't hit him anyway." Cash, forced to use a real bat, popped out to end the game, preserving the no-no.
Ryan's next start came four days later in Anaheim against the Orioles. He had already thrown two no-hitters that year, one against the Royals on May 15, and two months later, the one in Detroit.
"I remember a lot of people asking me about that start, and whether I could do it again, and I remember my mindset: I'm going to do it," Ryan said 40 years later. "I shouldn't have thought that way. I learned that it became a distraction. It was one of those things that was a good experience, but I learned that that was not the proper way to approach a start."
Ryan lost his shutout in the first inning with a one-out walk to Rich Coggins, who stole second, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on a groundout. But Ryan tore through the next six innings without allowing a hit. After seven innings, it was 1-1. He had 10 strikeouts.
"Normally, you never pay close attention [to whether you have a no-hitter going] in the early innings. But by the middle innings that night, I was aware of it, but it was not prevalent on my mind," Ryan said. "I took a lot of no-hitters into the later innings in my career, so I am very aware of how hard it is to finish one out. When you get to the later innings, I think the advantage goes to the hitters because they've seen you the entire game."
Ryan took a no-hitter into the eighth inning 23 times, and is the only pitcher in the past 50 years to throw seven no-hit innings in a start following a no-hitter. (Sixty-six years ago, Cincinnati's Ewell Blackwell threw 8 1/3 innings of no-hit ball in the start after a no-hitter, the closest anyone has come to Vander Meer's feat.) Ryan opened the eighth inning against the Orioles by hitting Brooks Robinson with a pitch, bringing up shortstop Mark Belanger, who finished his career with a .228 average but went 11-for-45 (.244) lifetime against Ryan.
"Mark Belanger always had good success against me. … Why, I don't know," Ryan said. "He wasn't George Brett or Rod Carew or Don Mattingly, but he was a pesky hitter for me."
Belanger singled to center, ending the no-hitter.
"I don't even remember what I was thinking when I gave up that hit. I can't recall the process," Ryan said. "I don't think he hit it very hard. Some of the hits he got off of me were bunts, some were flares that just got over the infielders, some were toppers in the infield. It wasn't like some hitters that just saw the ball really well against me. Some guys just have your number. Some guys just always seem to hit the ball where no one is standing. If I remember it correctly, it was just a flare to the outfield, just out of the reach of everyone. He just muscled it out there. After that, I was only focused on winning the game."
The Angels lost 3-1 in 11 innings. Ryan got the loss, allowing two runs in the 11th.
Forty years later, no one has come as close as Ryan to throwing no-hitters in back-to-back starts. Ryan was asked if it is impossible to imagine some pitcher doing that someday.
"I wouldn't say that," he said. "There are pitchers today that get into a sequence or a groove where they are absolutely dominant, like Randy Johnson. It wasn't just in one start, but there are times when that overpowering sequence you were in carried over to the next start. A lot depends on the lineup you're facing. I remember when Tom Seaver struck out 19 Padres. They had an excessive number of right-handed hitters in their lineup. He had an overpowering slider and overpowering fastball that day. They were overmatched."
No teams were more overmatched than they were against Ryan in his prime. He didn't just throw seven no-hitters. He also had 12 one-hitters, tying Bob Feller for the most of all time. Ryan allowed 6.56 hits per nine innings in his career, the best rate in history -- hence making him the hardest pitcher of all time to hit. The Braves' Ralph Garr, one of the great fastball hitters, once struck out on three pitches against Ryan to start a game many years ago. When Garr went back to the bench, his teammates looked at him for information about what Ryan had that night. Garr looked and them and said, "This [expletive] is over."
That's the type of stuff Ryan had the night of his no-hitter against the Tigers in 1973. And that's the kind of stuff he had four days later that night in Anaheim against the Orioles.
"After that Baltimore game, I never went into a start with the intent to throw a no-hitter. I just focused on pitching my game," Ryan said. "I wasn't going to fall into that trap again."
It was rare that Ryan ever fell into a trap, and he always learned from his mistakes – though there were few of those for him. For 25 years, no one threw a baseball harder than he did, and no one conducted himself more professionally than he did. Many years ago, Blue Jays third baseman Rance Mulliniks was asked what the game would be like if everyone in baseball was like Nolan Ryan.
"Everyone would love each other," Mulliniks said, "and no one would get a hit."