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June 14, 2010
For the Nonce
So much for best-laid plans. On Wednesday, we'll be delivering at least a couple of columns talking a bit about what's wrong—and right—with the two teams of the Windy City, but Sunday night's game earned a carved-out column all its own. If it didn't show off what's right or wrong with Chicago's two teams, it did show off what's right about baseball in general, while also showing off Chicago's love for beating its second city rap to flinders. And all because both the White Sox and Cubs chased no-hit bids late into the game, an unusual enough occurrence, but an important reminder that both teams boast big-name rotations, and that by stacking starting pitching talent as well as both clubs have, you may not be guaranteed playoff spots, but you will get a few well-spun ballgames in the course of the campaign.
Now, of course near no-hit experiences are par for the course where the game's concerned. But a double dose of near no-nos in the same contest? Not so much as STATS LLC reported that the last time both teams were held hitless through 6 1/2 innings was on July 13, 1980 when the Yankees' Rudy May squared off against the White Sox's Steve Trout at the original Comiskey Park.
For this feat we can thank Cubs' Ted Lilly and the White Sox's Gavin Floyd, as both delivered excellence on an already supercharged night as far as Chicagoans were concerned because of the pre-game festivities: mysterious as this turn of events might be for many of us, the NHL champion Blackhawks paraded down the foul lines and around the warning track, hefting their newly won Stanley Cup, shaking hands and high-fiving fans, and letting anyone who could reach touch the trophy before getting their due on the mound.
However much this might sound like an apology for the non-countable, it's hard to describe the fact that the atmosphere at Wrigley Field was electric, like a playoff game in June, and how much of that was a confluence of so many extraneous factors? Two teams with playoff ambitions that seem increasingly thwarted as this season progresses, one gunning for a three-game sweep, the other trying to fend it off, both with management issues that keep capturing the headlines, in a nationally televised game, and with the venue also hosting that pre-game celebration of the hometown 'Hawks hoisting their own history aloft? Of course it was a night where Chicago seemed charged up, and the Chicagoans in the stands provided happy mediums with a madness of crowds. Afterwards, Lilly would remark about how the atmosphere was amazing, and while we can't know whether that influenced the performances on the field, it'd be the height of actuarial conceit to pretend to know that it didn't.
For all that, perfection was out the window early. Floyd walked Marlon Byrd in the first, while Lilly hit A.J. Pierzynski in the second inning. Lilly then gave up Floyd's first-ever walk as a batter in the third—while obviously leaning on less than full speed against the opposing pitcher—and then came inside again, hitting Gordon Beckham on the elbow in the fifth. This weren't quite Andy Hawkins-level no-hit bids, but for Lilly it was an exercise in picking spots and executing, not overpowering people. Two hit batsmen? One element of his game plan was establishing the inside corner, and that comes with attendant risks.
Take hitting Pierzynski—that wasn't by design, of course, but Lilly's occasional issues with left-handed batters has tilted into full-bore bass-ackwardsness, especially in recent seasons. It's mildly interesting to note he's allowed a higher OPS to lefties in four of his 10 full seasons in the majors, all four occurring in the last six, and three of them in his four campaigns with the Cubs. So, even with a 742 OPS allowed career to right-handers (balanced against a 702 OPS allowed to lefties), it would be hard to say that he has a strong platoon split on his career. Not that seven at-bats define a matchup forever after, but Pierzynski had hit a homer against Lilly in their brief associations. Of course, plunking Pierzynski also made great theater—AJP is generally an object of loathing on the teams he doesn't play for, and add in his having a huge first game in this series and his well-remembered past rumbling with the Cubs, and it was no surprise this made for great theater.
Similarly, Floyd pitched wonderfully well, dialing his heat up into the mid-90s at times, striking out nine. In this gme, he was perpetuating a recent hot streak, having thrown quality starts in three of his previous four spins to up his season record (using runs, not earned runs) to six QS, two quality starts blown after the sixth, and two disaster starts (more runs allowed than IP). For all that, Floyd had a .399 SNWP before the ballgame, ranking as the most disappointing of the team's trio of rotation disappointments, but profiting from the fact that he's not Mark Buehrle or Jake Peavy, but “just” the club's fourth starter. Before his no-hit bid ended, perhaps only the fifth-inning scorcher lined to the hot corner by Koyie Hill might have tested the official scorer, but Jayson Nix's throw sailed far and wide past Paul Konerko made for an easy call for an E5.
The breakthrough came in the bottom of the seventh, after an especially enthusiastic bit of stretch celebrations, and at a point where it became obvious the game was out of the ordinary because of both hurlers' efforts. First Floyd retired Byrd on a grounder to third, but then he walked Derrek Lee for the second time. While Lee used to run a bit and Floyd/Pierzynski used to be one of the most permissive stolen-bases-allowed batteries in baseball, neither thing is true these days—I came into the game wanting to watch and see if Floyd's move was notably better, but it wasn't like we got much in the way of baserunners to look and see. With just five steals attempted against him so far this season (albeit four successful), the running game's proven to be less of a distraction. However, when a changeup in the dirt to Alfonso Soriano got away from Pierzynski, Lee, leaning, tried to take second. It proved a godsend, because Pierzynski nailed Lee on a non-steal attempt to advance. That's two more outs and so we're into a double dose of history heading into the eighth.
At which point Soriano, if nothing else a man with the power and contact ability to upset this particular apple cart, did so two pitches after seeing Lee gunned down, pelting a double towards the left-field corner. But there's still a shutout on... until the next pitch, when Chad Tracy follows up with a clean single past a diving Beckham, the second baseman, to score Soriano easily, putting the Cubs up 1-0.
This left us with two elements of drama—could Lilly achieve his first no-hitter, and would the Cubs avoid the sweep and make a 1-0 win stand up with two innings to go. Lilly obliged with his portion of the proposition in the eighth, retiring the 6-7-8 hitters—Pierzynski, Becks, and Nix—to ride into the ninth having thrown 106 pitchers, a half-dozen short of his season high. Beckham drew a wave of boos by showing bunt on the first pitch, but let's be fair—it was a 1-0 ballgame, and a baserunner's a baserunner. Tracy noted after the game that, “You would wish he would not bunt in a situation like that,” but who knows how he'd answer the question if it had been his team in the same spot, or how much he'd mean it one way or another.
So, to the ninth, after Floyd killed dead his no-hitter flirtation with a third hit allowed to no damage. Ozzie Guillen, confronted with a pinch-hit leadoff at-bat with Floyd due up, went straight for Juan Pierre, and while that previous bunt attempt might have inspired Lou Piniella to have Tracy pulled in at third, defensive machinations didn't matter—Pierre simply lined a single up the middle, the last no-hitter left standing turned toes up, and now we were into the simpler question of whether or not the Cubs could protect a 1-0 lead and avoid the sweep. Piniella reached for Carlos Marmol, who responded to the challenge the way you might expect, generating Funck-y, exciting outcomes by walking Andruw Jones, striking out Alexei Ramirez while balking Pierre and Jones to third and second, bringing Alex Rios to the dish. Piniella put him on base to risk facing Konerko with the bases loaded—not the worst idea, since Konerko's DP numbers are up this year over last, but still, a risk. It ended up working out, in that Konerko cued a pitch to the opposite field that was scooped up by Lee, who fired home for the force to get the second out. With the bases loaded, Carlos Quentin anticlimactically flied to center, garnering a second win on the season for Lilly, and another save of the too-exciting variety for Marmol.
After the game, with a clean feat of memory, Lilly noted that this was the closest he'd come to a no-hitter since 2002. Pitching for the Yankees against the Mariners on April 27, 2002, he carried a no-hitter into the bottom of the eighth inning in a game that, like this one, was tight. Both teams were scoreless, and Lilly got Carlos Guillen looking to get him five outs short. But then Dan Wilson walked, Pinniella, then the M's skipper, pinch ran Luis Ugueto, who moved up on a wild pitch, then scored when Desi Relaford singled. To add insult to injury, Lilly lost that game, 1-0. Considering the names involved and having to take the loss, you can understand how the man hadn't forgotten that flirtation with history.
Totally Extraneous Factoid: It's an amusing coincidence that my favorite pizzas in Chicagoland—back before my late-onset gluten allergy robbed me of the pleasure of munching 'za—were the Sicilian pies of Nonno's in Berwyn: fresh spinach, fresh tomatoes, great sauce, sausage so good you could taste the fennel... it's the stuff congestive heart failure is happily made out of, slice by slice. So these days, no Nonno's for me, and as of tonight's action, still no no-no's for me. As much as you might think the odds are with me, I'm troubled by beat writer George Castle's confession in the box last night that he's never seen a no-hitter in person in his career; he's been doing this since 1980. I don't know if I'll ever outlast the allergy, but I'm hopeful to run into a boxscore no-no in person before all's said and done.