Last year, baseball fans were treated to a whopping seven no-hitters, equaling the high-water mark from 1990 and 1991. While scoring is down slightly and strikeouts on the rise relative to 2012, it took more than half a season for a pitcher to notch this year's first no-hitter. The man who did so on Tuesday night was the same one who closed out the banner 2012 in zeroes: the Reds' Homer Bailey.
Bailey shut down the defending world champion Giants in Cincinnati before a crowd of 27,507 at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. He allowed only one baserunner, walking Gregor Blanco to lead off the seventh after retiring the first 18 Giants. He struck out nine and needed just 109 pitches to complete the job. The Reds offense provided ample support, touching up San Francisco starter Tim Lincecum for three runs, two via Brandon Phillips' sixth-inning homer, en route to a 3-0 win.
Bailey's previous no-hitter came last Sept. 28, when he blanked the Pirates for the season's seventh and final no-hitter. In adding another one on Tuesday, he became the first pitcher since Nolan Ryan to account for consecutive no-hitters in the annals of major league history — meaning that no other pitcher threw one between his two. Ryan did so on Sept. 28, 1974 and June 1, 1975; he also did the same with a pair of no-hitters in 1973. Since 1900, Addie Joss (1908-1910), Johnny Vander Meer (in back-to-back starts in 1938), Allie Reynolds (1951) and Warren Spahn (1960-1961) are the other pitchers to accomplish the feat.
With a pair of no-hitters under his belt, it's safe to say that the 27-year-old righty is finally living up to the expectations the Reds had when they made him the seventh overall pick of the 2004 draft out of La Grange (Texas) High School. Bailey spent the next four years (2005-2008) in the upper half of Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list, peaking at number five in 2007 and remaining in the top 10 the following year, but control problems and injuries prevented him from topping 22 starts or 132 innings in a major league season prior to last year. He broke out in a big way in 2012, going 13-10 with a 3.68 ERA in 208 innings while helping the Reds win the NL Central.
Though his current won-loss record is just 5-6, Bailey is having an even better season this time around. The no-hitter lowered his ERA to 3.57, and he maintained his strikeout rate at exactly a batter per inning (9.0 per nine); he's seventh in the league in that mark, and ninth in strikeout-to-walk ratio at 4.3. Last year, he struck out only 7.3 per nine, and he also had higher walk and homer rates — 2.3 and 1.1 per nine, respectively, compared to 2.1 and 0.6 this year.
As with Bailey's September no-hitter, Ryan Hanigan was the catcher behind the plate. Five other Reds — Jay Bruce Zack Cozart, Todd Frazier, Phillips and Joey Votto — were in the lineup for both games, with Frazier playing leftfield in September and third base on Tuesday night.
Bailey rode his four-seam fastball throughout the night, particularly in the late innings. According to the PITCHf/x data at BrooksBaseball.net, from the seventh inning on, 30 of Bailey's last 40 pitches were four-seam fastballs and another four were two-seamers. Overall, 68 of his 109 pitches were four-seamers, with an average velocity of 95.3 mph, and a max of 98.2, which came on his second-to-last pitch of the night — a ball to Blanco on an 0-2 pitch. Adrenaline, anyone?
Bailey's next pitch, a 97.6 mph heater, induced Blanco to ground out, ending the game and triggering the festivities:
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In all, Bailey netted seven swings and misses via the four-seamer and another five from among the 16 two-seamers, for an impressive whiff rate of 14 percent with the hard stuff. Seven strikeouts ended with one fastball or another, six of them swinging. He threw 22 sliders and got five more swings and misses, as well as two strike threes, one called. He also threw two changeups and one curve. While he got 10 outs in the air, only one ball was hit to the outfield after the fourth inning, that by Brandon Belt in the eighth.
It didn't hurt Bailey's cause that he was facing a Giants club that's been in a severe funk. The team came in having lost nine out of 11, falling from second place to fourth in the NL West but losing just 1 1/2 games in the standings because of the first place Diamondbacks' slide. During that 11-game stretch, San Francisco hit just .224/.281/.356 while averaging 2.18 runs per game.
That said, aside from the loss of centerfielder Angel Pagan, this was the Giants' standard lineup, with Buster Posey behind the plate, Belt at first, and Pablo Sandoval long since returned from injury. Posey and Marco Scutaro were the only Giants starters who didn't strike out at least once, while Lincecum was the only one who struck out twice. Brandon Crawford, who went seven pitches deep into his turn at the plate in the sixth inning before striking out on a two-seamer, and Sandoval, who went nine pitches deep in the seventh before whiffing on a four-seamer, were the only San Francisco hitters with who worked Bailey beyond six pitches in a single plate appearance the entire night.
Bailey went above 13 pitches in an inning just three times, needing 15 pitches in the first and sixth innings and 20 in the seventh. After Blanco reached in the seventh, he advanced to second on Scutaro's grounder to third base. When Posey followed with a broken-bat grounder to Votto, Bailey got a late jump to cover first base, but Votto threw across the diamond to Frazier, nabbing Blanco for a fielder's choice — the defensive play of the game:
[mlbvideo id="28534157" width="600" height="360" /] Prior to Bailey's no-hitter, the Rangers' Yu Darvish and the Tigers' Anibal Sanchez came closest to completing the feat this year. Darvish came within one out of a perfect game against the Astros on April 2. Sanchez fell two outs shy of a no-hitter against the Twins on May 25. With major league batting averages collectively falling one point from last year (.255 to .254) and strikeout rates up slightly as a percentage of total plate appearances (19.81 percent, up from 19.78 percent), it may only be a matter of time before we start seeing more pitchers close the deal as Bailey did -- twice.