Less than 24 hours after Tim Lincecum threw the second no-hitter of the 2013 season, two pitchers made bids to add a third. In Detroit, the Tigers' Justin Verlander kept the Rangers hitless through 6 2/3 innings before surrendering a double to Mitch Moreland, and in Oakland, the Red Sox Brandon Workman held the A's hitless through six before Coco Crisp beat out an infield single.
For Verlander, this was old hat. The 30-year-old righty already has two no-hitters under his belt, one against the Brewers on June 12, 2007, and the other against the Blue Jays on May 7, 2011. Had he been able to get seven more outs to complete a third, he would have joined some illustrious company: Nolan Ryan (seven), Sandy Koufax (four), Bob Feller (three) and Cy Young (three) are the only pitchers in modern major-league history to throw at least three no-hitters. Larry Corcoran, an ambidextrous pitcher from the 1880s — a time when the basic rules regarding the number of balls and strikes in each plate appearance and the distance to the mound were still in flux — had three as well.
For Workman, this was something new, as the 24-year-old rookie was making his first major-league start and just his second appearance following a two-inning relief stint on July 10. In doing so, he became the third pitcher this week to flirt with a no-hitter in his first major-league start. The Indians' Danny Salazar no-hit the Blue Jays through the first five innings of his debut on July 11 before yielding a leadoff single to Josh Thole to start the sixth. The next day, the Astros' Jarred Cosart no-hit the Rays for 6 1/3 innings in his debut before giving up a single to Ben Zobrist.
After seven no-hitters last year, the highest total in a major-league season since 1990 and 1991, it took until July 2 for Homer Bailey — who had thrown the final no-hitter of 2012 — to register the first one of the year; it came against the Giants. While neither Verlander nor Workman took no-hitters into the ninth as Yu Darvish (who came within one out of a perfect game on Apr. 2) and Anibal Sanchez (who came within two outs of his second-career no-hitter on May 25) did earlier this season, it's quite possible that we could see more given current trends. Coming into the day, major-league hitters as a whole were batting .254, one point below last year and a level not seen since 1988 and 1989. Meanwhile, hitters are striking out in a record 19.8 percent of all plate appearances, and the major-league batting average on balls in play is at .296; it hasn't been below .295 since 2003, a point when the strikeout rate was just 16.4 percent. Less contact and fewer hits on balls in play mean a higher likelihood of no-hitters.
Though he had taken a no-hitter into the seventh back on May 5, Verlander has not been in top form this year. He came into the day carrying a 3.71 ERA, his highest mark since 2008. Whether due to reduced velocity (his average fastball this year is 93.4 MPH, down from 95.1 last year, and 96.2 in 2010) or lousy team defense (a .674 defensive efficiency, 14th in the league), he's been more hittable this year, with a .336 BABIP, up from .275 last year and .237 the year before; meanwhile, his hits per nine have climbed since his 2011 Cy Young campaign, from 6.2 to 7.3 to 9.3.
He wasn't overpowering on Sunday, averaging 93.5 MPH with the fastball and netting four swings and misses. He struck out just three while walking three. "It was a little bit different Verlander than what we usually see,” Moreland told reporters after the game. “He mixed a lot of off-speed in there and kept us off-balance."
Moreland's hit came on Verlander's 104th pitch. He made just one more, inducing Elvis Andrus to pop out, before departing due to a tight right quadriceps; Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit finished out the Tigers' 5-0 victory. The leg may have been part of why Verlander was offering a different look. From MLB.com's Bobby Nightengale:
Pitching coach Jeff Jones alerted Leyland in the sixth inning that Verlander wasn't pushing off the same way as usual with his right leg.
"It wasn't like a big issue," Verlander said. "It just started to get tight. I noticed after my last start that my legs were a little fatigued and I just think that just carried over with the short rest [because] it's a day game and it's hot. It just started to nag at me a little bit."
After starting the All-Star Game for the American League last year, Verlander was selected to this year's AL team, but because he pitched Sunday, he will not actually appear in Tuesday's game at Citi Field. The Orioles' Chris Tillman was added to the roster to take Verlander's spot.
As for Workman, the 2010 second-round pick out of the University of Texas was recalled from Triple-A Pawtucket late last week and given the chance for a spot start because the Sox were short-handed. Clay Buchholz is still on the disabled list, Alfredo Aceves is hurt (and perhaps done in Boston), Allen Webster is back in Triple-A after being hit hard the last time through the rotation, and Steven Wright, who was called up to take his place, threw 5 2/3 innings in relief of a battered Ryan Dempster on Friday.
Workman was hit hard in his debut out of the bullpen, serving up a homer to light-hitting Brendan Ryan to start his major league career and then yielding back-to-back doubles. He fared much better as a starter. Working primarily with a four-seam fastball (average speed 91.7 MPH according to BrooksBaseball.net), cutter and curve, he didn't allow a baserunner until walking John Jaso with one out in the fourth; he was erased as the back end of a strikeout/throw out double play. That was one of five strikeouts he notched on the day, though he got just five swings and misses. Leading off the sixth, Crisp beat out an infield single on a hot smash up the middle that Dustin Pedroia was able to stop by diving, but his throw to first base was late. Two batters later, Josh Donaldson homered to erase Boston's 2-0 lead and end Workman's day after 103 pitches. The game stayed tied until the 11th inning, when newly acquired Matt Thornton issued two walks and then yielded an RBI single to Donaldson, thus enabling the A's (56-39) to take the rubber match of a three-game series and close the gap on the Red Sox (58-39) for the AL's best record.