Thursday, June 14, 2007
The Toughest Out
With two out in the ninth inning, the third out is always tough.
There is no time piece in baseball. No clocks, no stop watches, nothing is determined in hundredths of seconds. The game is over when that last out is made.
That out is even tougher when there is a no hitter on the line. The scoreboard indicates the situation with zeros---usually no runs, and no hits.
As the ninth inning approaches, there is a magic that takes over, an aura of something very special about to take place.
The pitcher sits quietly in the dugout during his team’s at bat during the eighth inning. No one will sit near him. No one will talk to him. It is traditional. It is sacrosanct. It is baseball.
There is no question that it is a nerve-wracking experience for the pitcher, the players, the management, the fans. There is a quiet calm as he leaves the dugout to take the mound for the last inning.
When he rings up the first two outs, it becomes volcanic. The fans stand, anticipating history. They roar with every strike, groan with the called balls. They erupt when the final out is made.
When Maglio Ordonez caught the fly ball for the last out in Detroit, Justin Verlander made history. His was the first no-hitter by a Tiger since Jack Morris accomplished the feat on the road in 1984---the last year that the Tigers won the World Series. His was the first no-hitter in Detroit since Virgil “Fire” Trucks tossed the “No No” in 1952. (Trucks was rewarded by the Tigers when they traded him the following year to the St. Louis Browns!)
Verlander is not a “Johnny-Come-Lately", by any stretch. He was drafted second overall by the Tigers in 2004, out of Old Dominion University. At that time, he was rated as the 22nd overall best right-handed starting pitching prospect.
That all changed dramatically last year. He won 17 games, lost nine for the Tigers in his first Major league Season. He won the Rookie of the Year Award for the American League. He had arrived. He helped the Tigers knock off the Yankees and the Oakland Athletics to get to the World Series.
At 6’ 5”, and 200 pounds, the lanky fireballer also mixes in other pitches. He leads the team in victories with seven, and has a miniscule 2.79 ERA. But he also most grateful to his teammates, as they give him 6.96 runs per nine innings, fifth-highest in the American League.
J J Hardy is second in the National League in Home Runs. He had an inkling that Verlander was going to be tough against his Brewers from his first at bat. “I think the pressure started mounting in the first inning, when he was throwing 100mph with that curveball and changeup, you know? When he can throw them all for strikes, he’s tough to hit.”
By the ninth inning, the fastball registered 102mph on the telecast. Verlander recalled the last out: “That’s why with one strike left and two outs, I stepped off the back of the mound and really just took a breather. I wasn’t soaking it up or anything, I was just trying to calm myself down.”
Hardy flied out to Ordonez, and catcher Ivan Rodriguez went out to hug Verlander. Pudge enjoyed the moment: “I think I was more excited than him. That moment when you see the fly ball go into his glove in slow motion, there’s no greater feeling than that. I’m sure he feels awesome; I feel great. I feel like I pitched a no-hitter myself.”
Several years ago, I sat in the fifth deck behind home plate at SkyDome in Toronto. The Jays’ Dave Stieb had two outs in the ninth inning. No Yankee had a hit. There was enough electricity in the air to run your family dryer for an eternity. Stieb stomped around on the mound, beside it, behind it. He was fired up, feeding off the situation. Roberto Kelly ruined the evening with a base hit to left field. Almost history.
The same thing happened this season to Boston’s Curt Schilling. He had two outs in the ninth and was pumped. Adrenalin raced through his body as he looked in for a sign from his catcher, Jason Varitek. He shook off a pitch or two, and served up a hittable pitch for Oakland’s Shannon Stewart. Whack! Into the outfield. Again, almost historic.
Nolan Ryan had it all figured out. Seven times he found himself in that position. Seven times he succeeded. He knew better than anyone how to get that last out, the toughest out.
June 13, 2007