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Teams weigh risk vs. reward when aces chase personal glory

Through five innings on April 17, Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez had thrown 82 pitches and walked six Braves batters. He was wild but also unhittable, having yet to allow even one Atlanta hit.

"Our first thought at that point was to keep our starter in the game as long as possible and set up who was going to come in from the bullpen for matchups," says Colorado pitching coach Bob Apodaca. "In the back of our minds, we knew what was at stake with Ubaldo, but we were not thinking no-hitter at that point."

It was after the fifth inning that Apodaca conferred with Jimenez in the dugout and suggested that he pitch out of the stretch all the time, even with no runners on base, because of some mechanical problems with his windup. Jimenez implemented the change in the sixth and allowed no more baserunners.

Jimenez completed the no-hitter with 128 pitches, seven more than any major-league starter had thrown to that point in the young season and the most in the 26-year-old's young career. But because it was not an unreasonable total -- his previous career high was 127 -- it saved Apodaca and manager Jim Tracy a very difficult decision of whether to pull Jimenez had his pitch count gotten higher with the no-hitter still intact.

But it begs the question -- when is it worth pushing the limit in pursuit of a rare individual accomplishment like a no-hitter? Where is that line of risk versus reward?

"This isn't just an individual team's concern," Apodaca says. "This is an industry concern."

The last 15 years or so have given rise to stalwart pitch-count watching, coinciding with new medical research into the health of pitchers' arms and the increase in salaries, making starters prized but often risky investments. It's gotten to the point that, as former pitcher Al Leiter says, as soon as a starter gets to 100 pitches, "bells go off and the manager is scuffling to get someone up [in the bullpen]."

Those concerns are compounded in April, when some pitchers may still be building arm strength. Since 1995 there have been 4,033 starts of at least 120 pitches but only 363 of them have been thrown in a team's first 25 games of the season (roughly five turns through a five-man rotation). Those 363 complete games constitute 9.0 percent of the total, while a team's first 25 games represents 15.4 percent of the season, indicating the proclivity to save arms earlier in the year.

But the no-hitter is a rare personal accomplishment. There have been only 264 in 135 years of baseball history, which is why any time a pitcher is on the precipice of completing one -- by, say, the sixth or seventh inning -- television programs are interrupted with live updates and websites begin carrying breaking news banners. A home team's fans will often rally around a visiting pitcher and cheer him on over the final few outs. Heck, Braves starter Derek Lowe, who threw a no-hitter with the Red Sox in 2002, watched Jimenez from the opposing dugout and confessed that he asked himself, "Do I root for the guy?"

The appeal of the no-hitter and its much rarer brother, the perfect game, is the display of total dominance, that a pitcher could repeatedly throw the nine-inch-round, five-ounce-heavy piece of cowhide and not once allow an opponent to hit it safely in 27 chances.

Leiter, who pitched 19 years and won 162 games in the majors, marvels at the importance throwing a no-hitter had for his career, after doing so for the Marlins on May 11, 1996.

"I wasn't a Hall of Fame player," Leiter, now an MLB Network analyst, says. "I had some good years and some big moments, but there's no question that the no-hitter, legacy-wise, put me on a different plateau."

In the first three weeks of the season, baseball has already had two instances of managers and pitching coaches having to make difficult decisions about whether to allow a starter to chase his dream of a no-hitter. In Jimenez's case, Apodaca says it was "nailbiting" for Tracy and himself in the dugout, even though Jimenez didn't look any worse for the wear. According to Pitch F/X data, he averaged 96.8 miles per hour on the 10 fastballs he threw in the eighth and ninth innings, which is the exact same speed -- to the tenth -- that he averaged on the 61 fastballs he threw in the game's first seven innings. Still, Apodaca had Rafael Betancourt warming in the eighth and Franklin Morales throwing in the ninth, just in case.

On April 10 the Yankees' CC Sabathia made a bid for his first no-hitter, carrying it through 7 2/3 innings before allowing a single to the Rays' Kelly Shoppach on his 111th and final pitch. After the game New York manager Joe Girardi conceded that it would have been Sabathia's last batter, whether he got Shoppach out or not, saying he wouldn't have allowed his ace to exceed his 115-pitch limit for the day. After the game Sabathia pledged, with a laugh, that there would have been a fight on the mound had Girardi come to remove him with the no-hitter ongoing. But pitching coach Dave Eiland told the New York media after the game that to let Sabathia throw many more pitches "would've been idiotic on our part." There's a lot to lose, after all, as Sabathia is only in the second year of a seven-year, $161 million contract.

Lowe, for one, disagrees, believing a starter should capture every chance he has at history, noting the unpredictability of the moment and how many Hall of Fame-caliber pitchers, like his former teammate Pedro Martinez, never threw one (though Martinez did once take a perfect game into the 10th inning before surrendering a leadoff double and leaving the game after 96 pitches).

"Those are days that don't ever pop up," Lowe says. "Are you going to look back and say, 'I didn't throw a no-hitter because I threw too many pitches'? An extra 20 pitches shouldn't affect you five days later."

So what really is the risk? Medically, the short answer is that all pitchers respond differently and that the key consideration is ensuring a proper rest schedule that suits the individual's needs.

Glenn Fleisig -- the Ph.D. research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute, where he works alongside renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews -- says pitchers never hurt themselves by throwing one too many pitch, even if it's early in the season.

"A big misconception, even among the pitchers who come here to see Dr. Andrews for surgery, is that they'll say, 'I felt something pop because it was a cold day' or 'It was April and I pitched too much' or 'I threw a curveball' or whatever," Fleisig says. "They report what they did on that last throw when they hurt their arm. They think that was the one pitch where they did too much, whether it was too many pitches that one game or it was too cold or too early, and that's not true."

Fleisig says that only in instances of trauma, such as in a car accident or a hard football tackle, do ligaments or tendons snap cleanly. Pitchers, meanwhile, suffer microtears to the fibers of their ligaments and tendons each time they throw, which is why the four days in between starts are critical for repairing that small amount of damage. Pitchers develop elbow and shoulder problems when they exceed their capacity on the days they throw, without giving their arms proper rest. That begins a cycle in which each start simply worsens the pre-existing tears that never fully healed, and the pop pitchers eventually feel is merely the tear of the last remaining piece of ligament or tendon.

"A pitcher's injury always looks like it's frayed," Fleisig says. "That means you never got injured because you did something bad once. You have to view someone's arm health not as what you do on the day [of your start] but what you do on your five-day cycle."

Over-exhausting one's arm in pursuit of a no-hitter can thus put that process in motion. The additional danger of throwing deep into games in April, Fleisig says, is that many starters aren't at 100 percent strength and fitness on Opening Day. If a pitcher is at his peak, there may not be too great a risk at exceeding his normal workload by a reasonable amount, particularly if the manager utilizes the extra off-days built into the early part of the schedule to give the starter more rest between outings.

Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild, like most of his major-league counterparts, prepares his pitchers by having them throw an additional 15 to 20 pitches in each spring training outing until about 100 in the last spring start, at which point it gets tricky because "you don't really jump it to 120." He believes there's more to the pitcher-removal equation than just a numerical pitch count, adding that you can tell if a starter is laboring just by watching "one pitch or a sequence of two or three pitches." And that's what he says is the most important determination in deciding whether to allow a starter to complete a no-hitter.

"You don't want to put one game ahead of a career -- you're not going to do that -- but [a no-hitter] is a little different situation," Rothschild says. "You've got to trust your instincts on that one. You're not going to give him an exorbitant number of pitches, but if he's not laboring to throw the ball and it's coming out [of his hand] easily, then you can give him a little bit more."

Starters have thrown 24 no-hitters without the aid of the bullpen since 1995, four of them (16.7 percent) thrown in a pitcher's first five starts of the season -- Hideo Nomo threw one in his first start with the Red Sox in 2001; Lowe completed his no-hitter in his fifth start of 2002; the White Sox' Mark Buehrle had a no-no in his third start of 2007; and Jimenez did it in his third turn as well.

Three times in that span, a starter with a no-hitter of at least seven innings has been lifted before the game was over. On Sept. 12, 1996 the Yankees' David Cone was removed after seven innings, having thrown 85 pitches, because it was his first start since returning from an aneurysm; on July 12, 1997 the Pirates' Francisco Cordova left after nine innings of a scoreless game, having thrown 121 pitches (reliever Ricardo Rincon completed the no-hitter in the 10th and got the win); and on May 3, 2002 Braves rookie Damian Moss walked seven batters and was taken out after seven innings after 116 pitches in just his sixth career start.

Leiter, who made 89 starts of at least 120 pitches in his career, thinks today's managers are generally too quick to pull a starter because of a pitch count and thinks subjective measurement -- watching to see if a pitcher is compromising his delivery, is leaving the ball up, is losing velocity -- should often count as much as a number, especially if a no-hitter is on the line.

Says Leiter, "It would be really hard for any pitcher to accept going eight innings, pitching 115 pitches and being taken out as a result of, 'Hey, your pitch count was over 100. Sorry.' "

Admittedly, most no-hitters shouldn't require huge pitch counts, unless a starter throws a large number of strikeouts or walks. Pitchers with great velocity often induce a lot of foul balls, which can also add to the total, but in the 24 individual no-hitters since 1995, starters averaged only 113 pitches. Dwight Gooden, in 1996, and Bud Smith, in 2001, topped out with 134 pitches each, while on the low end Cone needed just 88 for his perfect game in '99.

At the end of the day pitchers want the glory of a paramount achievement; coaches and ownership want healthy pitchers and wins.

"We were going to give him every opportunity to fulfill a dream," Apodaca says of Jimenez. "[But] we're always thinking about the health of the pitcher and, if it didn't happen, we were prepared, because our utmost thought was winning the ballgame."

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