Sports

The Cutoff Man: Pitching dominates

“Half this game is 90 percent mental.” ­­—Former Philadelphia Phillies manager Danny Ozark.

Were I ever to have met the late Mr. Ozark, I’d have argued that 90 percent of the game is half luck. The strategy is what makes baseball such an intricate sport, but the true excitement and frustration stem from the skill and luck involved.

All factors were especially apparent in two games on Saturday. The Colorado Rockies’ Ubaldo Jimenez pitched the first no-hitter in franchise history, shutting down the Braves in Atlanta as the Rockies rolled to a 4–0 win. The Mets and Cardinals, on the other hand, went head to head for 18 scoreless innings before each team scored a run in the 19th. The Mets came out on top, 2–1, after 20 very, very long innings.

The Braves have now been the victims of no-hitters in Atlanta twice in the last six years. Randy Johnson, as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, became the oldest pitcher to pitch a perfect game when he shut down all 27 Braves he faced at Turner Field on May 18, 2004. Having no hits doesn’t necessarily mean a team has poor hitting; it means the guy on the mound is nasty. It also means he’s got a whole lot of luck.

When Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle pitched a perfect game last July 23 against Tampa Bay, his outfielder DeWayne Wise made a leaping, falling catch to rob the Rays’ Gabe Kapler of a home run and preserve the perfect game. That was pure skill on the part of Wise; it was pure luck on the part of Buehrle.

So it was that Ubaldo Jimenez took the mound on Saturday with Dexter Fowler in center field. The 6'5" Fowler is known for his speed, and he certainly put it on display to help the cause in Atlanta. With two incredible catches, one of them a completely sprawling, breakneck diving catch, Fowler saved the day for Jimenez and gave him the confidence that he could do something special on that mound.

To me, there is nothing more awe-inspiring than a pitcher throwing a no-hitter, especially a perfect game. My brother Linus was lucky enough to be at Yankee Stadium on May 17, 1998 — Beanie Baby Day — when New York’s David Wells threw a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins. My dad was almost as lucky — he got to see the Mets’ Tom Seaver take a perfect game into the ninth inning before it was broken up.

Pitching a no-hitter is the ultimate accomplishment. It shows how dominant a pitcher can be. Every team has great players, and even the lesser players are still good enough to make the major leagues. Everyone is capable of getting a hit. When Wells pitched his perfect game, Hall of Famer Paul Molitor and then-superstar Marty Cordova were in the lineup for the Twins, and both were silenced.

When Jimenez pitched on Saturday, he faced a potent lineup that included future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones and the prince of baseball, Jason Heyward. That lineup was silenced as well.

In St. Louis on Saturday, a game that was broadcast on FOX beginning at 4 p.m. ended a little after 11. While no pitcher was perfect, the Cardinals’ Jaime Garcia did have a no-hitter through the first five innings. The Mets’ Johan Santana was equally dominant, and after each starter exited after seven innings — Santana with nine strikeouts, Garcia with only one hit allowed — one could not help but think, “What an excellent pitchers’ duel. This is going to be a great finish.”

And it was. Eventually.

Terrific defense helped save the day in this one as well.

The Cardinals loaded the bases with two out in the 10th inning before Matt Holliday lofted a foul pop-up towards the first-base stands. The Mets’ Alex Cora, hardly a first baseman by trade, jumped to catch the ball and landed in the seats, holding onto the ball to end the inning and lengthen highlight reels for years to come.

After the Mets scored in the 19th off the Cardinals’ second position player to pitch in the game, and the Cardinals tied it off the Mets’ closer, one could only sit in awe, agony, disbelief and, for true fans, excitement that a modern-day game was hitting the 20th inning.

Even truer baseball fans appreciated that it was only 1–1. Once the Mets finally put the game away in the 20th, sighs of relief were all the rage.
Pitching and defense have been making a comeback, and never was it more present than on Saturday. The Mets are now one of three teams, along with the Padres and the Rays, that have never had a no-hitter thrown in team history. I’m still waiting — eventually some team has to come out of a game hitless at the hands of the Mets.

After all, as Danny Ozark once said, “Even Napoleon had his Watergate.”

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