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Top 5 Most Heartbreaking Near No-Hitters in MLB History

Baseball
Top 5 Most Heartbreaking Near No-Hitters in MLB History

Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports Images

The phenomenon that is a major league no-hitter results from a convergence of skill, opportunity, and luck.

– The skill is easy to explain; if the pitcher didn’t have it, he wouldn’t be in The Show.

– The opportunity presents itself in the pitcher’s realization that, for whatever reason, on that day and time, he’s in the ‘zone’, that nirvana athletes experience when they’re in total command of their abilities.

– The luck is in the defense behind the pitcher chipping in a fielding gem – or two, or three – to preserve the whitewash.

Hurling a no-no is also a fast track into the Hall of Fame. Memorabilia from each achievement becomes an exhibition there. From 1875 to 2013, only 282 have been recorded. Given that around 360,000 major league games have been played in that span, no-hitters are truly deserving of such enduring recognition.

A select few of these have been legendary events:

– Don Larsen of the New York Yankees threw the most dramatic perfect game of the 23 ever accomplished, as it was in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. It’s the only time this has ever been done on baseball’s biggest stage.

– Johnny van der Meer – and that’s the way his Dutch heritage spells it – defied all odds in 1938 when he tossed no-hitters for the Cincinnati Reds in consecutive starts. This is a staple on lists of records that will never be broken.

In his early career, Babe Ruth pitched for the Boston Red Sox. He walked the game’s first batter in a 1917 start, argued the call, got tossed, and Ernie Shore was summoned from the bullpen to replace him. Shore proceeded to pick off the runner Ruth walked and then mowed down the next 26 Washington Senators he faced. In so doing, he joined the Babe in the books as registering a tag-team no-no.

Ruth can be excused for backing into the annals of history on that one, as he soon added entire chapters in his own bombastic way.

His dubious role in the 1917 no-hitter, though, serves as a fitting theme for another category in baseball lore. That would be one dedicated to those pitchers who gained more fame by not pitching no-hitters due to circumstances beyond their control. The fact they all remained sane afterwards is a sterling testament to the durability of the human condition.

Here, then, are five humble hurlers and their near exploits that gained them more notoriety than all but a handful of the 282 who are memorialised in baseball’s cathedral of achievement in Cooperstown:

5. Armando Galarraga loses a perfect game on blown call at first with two outs in the ninth

Armando Galarraga

It was a comfortable night in Detroit on June 2, 2010. A gentle breeze wafted through Comerica Park as part of the perfect conditions that found heretofore unknown Tiger right-hander Armando Galarraga peering in to catcher Alex Avila, awaiting a sign for the pitch that could cap a perfect game against the Cleveland Indians.

In what was to be his only brush with immortality, the young Venezuelan was dialled in. He was in the midst of his fourth season, toiling in relative obscurity, and only Tribe shortstop Jason Donald was standing in the way of raising his profile as the first Tiger ever to set down the minimum 27 batters that comprise a perfect day.

Donald had made contact in his previous two at-bats, grounding to short and lining to right. Galarraga had pitched to contact all night, though, fanning only three batters, and the only outstanding play behind him had been center fielder Austin Jackson’s brilliant running catch to retire Mark Grudzielanek for the ninth’s first out. Consensus had it that Galarraga had dodged the obligatory bullet that often accompanies perfect performances.

Should have been.

Donald meekly grounded a ball to first baseman Miguel Cabrera, wide of the bag. Instinctively, Galarraga moved to cover first, took the toss, and easily touched the base before Donald. And just as the 28-year-old was about to be engulfed in the emotions of a rare moment, umpire Jim Joyce inexplicably called Donald safe.

Two teams and 17,738 fans in attendance suddenly proved the existence of Einstein’s time-space continuum. And if life actually has a Get out of Jail Free card, Donald realized he had just drawn his. That left Joyce, who had suddenly become the personification of flatulence in church.

This incident is regularly cited as a prime exhibit for the use of replay that baseball has now implemented at long last. However, on this night, it was available for entertainment purposes only. Joyce saw it after the game. To his credit, he immediately admitted his mistake and was authentically inconsolable. Among other consequences, he knew this would become his signature call.

As to Galarraga, a return to mediocrity beckoned. He knocked around to Houston and Arizona. He spent 2013 in AAA-ball. He’s now hoping to land a job with the Texas Rangers.

4. The man who wasn’t there

Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports Images

Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports Images

Matt Harvey was on a roll. The New York Mets’ latest pitching phenom had come close to hurling a perfect game earlier in the 2013 season, when an infield single to short by Alex Rios posted the only hit the Chicago White Sox would get from a dominating performance by the 6-foot-4 right-handed flame-thrower.

Now, just over a month later, on June 18, he was in the zone again, stifling the powerful Atlanta Braves through six innings at Turner Field.

With his fastball touching 100mph, Harvey had struck out seven straight Braves from the third through the fifth inning. Entering the seventh, only two batters had managed to get the ball out of the infield. None had even come close to threatening Harvey with a hit.

It was the sort of performance that seemed to render as inconsequential the insertion of Lucas Duda into the lineup at first base. This was only the second time he’d played the position. It’s where managers often stick their boppers who are paid to pound the ball rather than field it.

Duda was usually stationed in the outfield and held his own out there. But manager Terry Collins was tinkering, which is why he wound up at first.

There’s a saying that the ball finds the weak spots. In the seventh, it did. Justin Heyward got enough of a Harvey offering to limply hit a bouncer to the right of the mound. Harvey instinctively charged toward it, picked it, and reflexively flipped it perfectly to first, the way pitchers have been drilled to do during every spring training since time began.

Unfortunately for Harvey and the Mets, the only person there was umpire Eric Cooper, and he’s not paid to field. It was all he could do to avoid the ball.

Where was Duda? Well, he’d also charged toward the bouncing ball, which is what outfielders are drilled to do. So he was in perfect position to view Cooper dodging and Heyward diving safely into first.

Heyward was credited with a hit. What with Rios legging out the bleeder a month-and-change earlier, Harvey had lost his second no-no bid without the fateful hit leaving the infield.

The disappointed hurler finished out the inning but was 116 pitches into the proceedings. Most team trainers will say a 120-pitch count is the red line for arm health, so Collins pulled his righty and let the Mets bullpen almost blow the game. Their 2-0 lead at the time ultimately became a 4-3 victory.

Extended-pitch outings like that may have had something to do with Harvey requiring Tommy John surgery by the end of the season. He’s hoping to return sometime in 2014, and if he ever gets close to a no-no in the late innings again, it’s odds-on he’ll be imploring the manager to put players who know their jobs at every position.

3. Unfinished business by managerial decree

Padres pitcher Clay Kirby

Padres pitcher Clay Kirby

Preston Gómez is a baseball lifer.

His career began in 1944 as a shortstop with the Washington Senators. After his playing days, he logged time as an organizational coach, minor league manager, and major league coach. A total dedication to the game ultimately rewarded him with his first managerial post, but what a daunting task it was! Gómez was hired in 1969 to be the inaugural skipper of the expansion San Diego Padres.

The reality of helming a team composed of every other club’s expendables is that it’s an achievement to just get through a season by entertaining a new fan base enough to entice them to return to the ballpark again and again. Winning is a bonus. And with a 52-110 campaign in the books, winning in San Diego was also an abstract.

But Gómez was a purist.

So in the Padres’ second season, on July 21, 1970, when hotshot rookie Clay Kirby had the sparse home crowd of 10,373 double-checking the entire scoreboard, Gómez only focused on the ‘runs’ column. That one read New York 1, Padres 0. The Mets leadoff hitter had walked, stole second and third, and then scored on a fielder’s choice. But it was the ‘hits’ column that held the fans’ attention. New York had none.

Kirby kept mowing the Mets down, but the inept San Diego hitters still hadn’t managed to generate anything themselves. It remained 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth. Two were out, and none other than Kirby was due up.

Gómez called him back and sent Cito Gaston up to pinch hit. Kirby was stunned, as was the crowd and, no doubt, the Mets. Gaston, who would later manage the Toronto Blue Jays to consecutive World Series victories in 1992 and 1993, was San Diego’s best hitter; he’d been given the night off, at least up until this point. Frankly, he had the best chance of igniting a late-inning rally.

That’s well and good, but the Padres were enduring another terrible season. They were so deep in the cellar, even the Marianas Trench could see more daylight than them. The Mets were hanging around in the NL East, but it was too early in the season to worry about ‘integrity of the game’ issues. At least it was for everyone but Gómez.

Booing fans were already in full throat by the time Gaston fanned, and they only got louder when reliever Jim Baldschun gave up three hits in a two-run Mets’ ninth, capping a 3-0 win. By the next morning, the Padres’ front office was besieged with indignant calls about Gómez denying Kirby a place in history.

In fact, Kirby’s only other sniff of a no-no came as a spectator in the Cincinnati bullpen during the 1974 season, when his team had a 2-1 eighth-inning lead over Houston, but the Astros’ Don Wilson had held The Big Red Machine hitless. By this time, Gómez was managing the ‘Stros, and he had a decision to make. No doubt, Kirby knew what was coming.

Wilson was due to lead off the inning. He didn’t. Gómez was nothing if not consistent. So was history; the pinch-hitter was retired, Wilson’s reliever yielded a hit in the ninth, and Houston lost.

At least Wilson had two prior no-hitters to his career credit. Kirby had only memories. And the Padres are still the only team in the majors without a no-hitter.

2. The Cookie Game

Bill Bevens; Joe DiMaggio

Small ball and charity had netted the Brooklyn Dodgers a run midway through Game 4 of the 1947 World Series. Journeyman starter Bill Bevens had been staked to a 2-0 lead by his New York Yankee teammates, but his wildness cost him in the bottom of the fifth. The 6-foot-3 righty issued two free passes, gave up a sacrifice bunt, and then minimized damages by getting a force out to only surrender one run.

But somehow, while Bevens wove nine walks throughout the game, he had silenced Brooklyn’s bats. There had been one Yankee error, but that occurred on the basepaths. Maybe it was sloppy, but Bevens kept his no-no intact going into Brooklyn’s last chance in the bottom of the ninth.

This was a huge game. The Bronx Bombers were up in the Series, two games to one, and a victory here would put a choke hold on another title. Bevens had carried them this far, so manager Bucky Harris decided the stout warhorse would see the Yankees through.

But Bevens began the frame in shaky fashion. Dodgers’ catcher Bruce Edwards took left fielder Johnny Lindell to the Ebbets Field wall for the first out, and then Carl Furillo walked. However, Spider Jorgenson fouled out, and it appeared Bevens had persevered. He was not only one out from a key victory, he was on the precipice of immortality.

Bevens was about to become the first pitcher in history to hurl a no-hitter in a World Series.

Harris must have figured it was destiny. But there’s a keen difference between destiny and fate, and it’s not good to tempt the latter.

By this time, Brooklyn manager Burt Shotton – one of the last to wear street clothes in the dugout – was looking for a rabbit to pull out of his hat. Literally. He opted to pinch-run the speedier Al Gionfriddo for Furillo, and the move paid dividends when Gionfriddo immediately stole second with pinch-hitter Pete Reiser at the plate. This is when Harris defied the baseball gods and paid for it. He ordered Bevens to walk Reiser – a .250 hitter that year – intentionally.

This was Bevens’ tenth walk of the game, but it made sense to Harris. He’d seen Bevens stranding base runners all day, and Dodgers leadoff hitter Eddie Stanky’s average was 20 points lower than Reiser’s. But it defies the ‘book’ to walk the potential winning run. Harris soon found out why.

Shotton inserted the fleet Eddie Miksis to run for Reiser and then summoned aging veteran Cookie Lavagetto to pinch-hit for Stanky. If there was going to be a miracle comeback, the table was as set for Brooklyn as it was ever going to be.

Lavagetto didn’t disappoint. The wily vet took a middle-out pitch the other way in textbook fashion, smashing a double off the right field fence so hard, it caromed off Tommy Henrich’s shoulder before he could corral it. By then it was too late. Both Dodger runners flew around the bases with the tying and winning runs.

Bevens’ dreams of putting a souvenir in Cooperstown were gone, just like that. And while the Yankees recovered to win the Series in seven games, 1947 remained most notable for being Jackie Robinson’s first year in the majors. The season would have no second dramatic headline.

Bevens came out of the bullpen to assist in the seventh-game victory, but that was it for him. He never appeared in the majors again, simply because his career had run its course. It was the same for Lavagetto. Bevens’ shot at glory had not only fallen short, its role in baseball lore was even eclipsed by Lavagetto and his walk-off, pinch-hit double.

Ever since, Game 4 of the 1947 World Series was not known as Bevens’ Near Miss. Instead, it was memorialised as the Cookie Game.

1. Hard Luck Harvey Haddix is perfect for 12 innings … and loses.

HADDIX

This ranks among the most spectacular games ever pitched. On May 26, 1959, Pittsburgh Pirates lefty Harvey Haddix went well above the call of duty. He held a potent Milwaukee Braves lineup without a baserunner of any kind for the equivalent of a game-and-a-third.

But it still wasn’t enough.

Milwaukee’s County Stadium was home to a team fresh off two straight World Series appearances – besting the Yankees in 1957 and falling to them in 1958 – and loaded with four future Hall of Famers (Enos Slaughter was a fifth, but he only played 11 games with them before retiring) with a supporting cast that could have included one or two others. The Braves were on their way to an 86-70 season, finishing two games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League pennant.

In other words, this was a formidable opponent.

The Pirates weren’t chopped liver, either. They would go on to finish fourth in an eight-team league, at 78-76. It was a team that boasted the likes of Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski, who would lead the Buccos to an improbable World Series comeback a year later. Vernon Law was the staff ace, and Haddix was a serviceable middle-rotation innings-eater.

At 5-foot-9 and 170lbs, the little lefty wasn’t a daunting figure, but his heater was sneaky-fast and his late-breaking slider bit like a copperhead when it was on. And for this game, it was on.

How on? Years later, Bob Buhl revealed to Haddix that he and other Braves relievers had binoculars in the bullpen and were stealing every sign catcher Smoky Burgess put down, relaying them to the Milwaukee batters via judicious placement of a towel. Only Henry Aaron refused to participate. But this espionage didn’t make any difference. Haddix surrendered only two liners in the first 12 innings, and they were easily caught by infielders. He also fanned eight.

There was even an omen. Before the game, Haddix went into more detail than usual as to how he would approach each Milwaukee batter. It prompted third baseman Don Hoak to laugh and remark that if he did all that, he’d throw a no-hitter.

Pittsburgh was down three regulars for this game. Dick Groat – National League MVP the next season – was slumping, Dick Stuart had the day off, and Clemente was resting a sore shoulder. And the Buccos’ bench just wasn’t that deep. This could be why Haddix was so fastidious about his game preparations.

Lew Burdette was one of the best pitchers of his generation. His accolades included two 20-win seasons, an ERA title, World Series wins, and third on the list of all-time wins for Braves pitchers. He threw over 3000 innings in 18 years, racking up 158 complete games and 55 shutouts, with one of each being registered on this night.

This was the ultimate pitcher’s duel. It was 0-0 and stayed that way into the late hours and extra innings.

Burdette would scatter 12 hits over 13 innings, walking none and striking out two. His breaking balls darted sharply enough to justify his unconfirmed reputation as having a mean spitball. He’d cruised through the top of the 13th, and the ball was now in Hard Luck Harvey’s court.

Ironically, Hoak snapped the perfect game bid. His off-target throw to first pulled Bill Virdon off the bag, and Félix Mantilla was aboard on an error. Eddie Matthews, of all people – 512 career home runs – sacrificed him to second; a slugger being called upon to bunt was yet another testament to Haddix’s performance. Aaron was then walked intentionally to set up a potential double play.

That brought up hard-hitting Joe Adcock, Milwaukee’s cleanup hitter for good reason. His bat could’ve helped a fledgling NASA launch satellites.

Haddix had dared him to hit outside sliders all night. Adcock was looking for another one, and he got it. All of it. A no-doubter to dash a no-hitter. He crushed it over the right field fence. Game over.

Interestingly enough, Aaron didn’t track the ball accurately and thought it was a ground rule double. After he saw Mantilla cross the plate, he abandoned the basepath and headed for the dugout. Adcock didn’t see that and kept trotting, ultimately passing Aaron’s basepath position and being called out. His shot went into the books as a double and not an addition to his career total of 336 homers. The official score became 1-0.

Haddix and Hoak were the last to leave the locker room that night. Burdette tried to call and console Haddix, but Hard Luck Harvey hung up on him. He also refused to go along with the various endorsement offers and celebrity appearances that followed. He wasn’t the sort to celebrate a loss.

Fortunately, he was able to celebrate a World Series title the next season. Haddix won two games against the Yankees, including the decider, when Mazeroski drilled the first walk-off home run in Series history. It was a fitting reward for one of that generation’s most diligent grinders.

And maybe he didn’t get credit for a perfect game, but Harvey Haddix did get a bit of space in the Hall of Fame. His glove is there to represent the memory of what he did. The heart it took for him to do it can only be imagined.

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