Mariners' combined no-no proves sports can amaze in rare moments
While most of America slept the night before the Greatest Sports Day Ever (Until The Next One), six Seattle Mariners pitchers served up the kind of historic performance that will be hard to match on Saturday by anyone or anything in Paris or Poland, Las Vegas or Long Island, Miami or Newark.
That of course, is the beauty of what Kevin Millwood, Charlie Furbush, Stephen Pryor, Lucas Luetge, Brandon League and Tom Wilhelmsen accomplished at Safeco Field on Friday night, where the Mariners threw a combined no-hitter at the Los Angeles Dodgers, the fourth no-no of this still-young season. A Grand Slam tennis match, a quadrennial soccer competition, a must-see prizefight, a Triple Crown horse race, important playoff games in the NBA and NHL -- all come with a predetermined date of significance.
What happened in the Pacific Northwest on Friday was a lightning bolt event, the kind no one can anticipate striking -- especially when it is a last-place team doing it to the club with the best record in baseball by utilizing a litany of pitchers known only to family, friends and liars. In making an already overstuffed weekend of athletic events even better, the Mariners offered a reminder that the best moments in sports are the ones we never see coming.
It's fitting that such an unexpected event would come from such unexpected sources. Millwood, who pitched the first six innings before leaving with a groin injury, is the closest thing the Seattle six-pack has for a big name, and he is now a 37-year-old journeyman pitching for his fourth team in four seasons whose only All-Star Game selection came last century. Furbush is in his second season and has a lifetime ERA over 5.00. Pryor got the win, the first of his major league career. Luetge, whom Seattle obtained last December in the Rule 5 draft, is, like the man he succeeded on the mound Friday night, a rookie. Brandon League was an All-Star last year but after blowing four saves early this season he was recently demoted from the closer's role by manager Eric Wedge.
Wilhelmsen has the most incredible story of all. Drafted by the Brewers in the seventh round in 2002, he was suspended for the entire 2004 season after failing multiple tests for marijuana. He left the sport in 2005, spent most of his time as a bartender in his hometown of Tucson, Ariz., and didn't return to professional baseball until catching on with an independent league team in 2009. Shortly thereafter he parlayed a tryout with the Mariners into a spot in their system. He debuted in the majors last year and has now replaced League in the closer's role. Wilhelmsen's save against the Dodgers was his third in five days, all scoreless outings in which he's given up one hit and no walks in 3 2/3 innings.
It was unquestionably the most memorable moment of his already-amazing career, even if he didn't realize it. "He didn't know," Mariners catcher Jesus Montero told the AP. "I jumped on him and I was like, 'Hey it's a no-hitter!' And he went 'What?!' And then he was so happy after that."
Wilhelmsen, Montero and the 22,028 fans on hand can enjoy forever what they were apart of on Friday night. There is a suspicion that much of the rest of the country, however, is starting to meet the news of these no-hitters with a collective yawn, and not just because the game ended at close to 1 a.m. ET. Baseball is reaching a point of diminishing returns with no-hitters. The excitement felt during most no-nos is giving way to a sense that they are becoming too frequent to be as magical as they used to be, too sharp a reminder of the way in which pitchers have come to dominate the game (run scoring is down for the sixth consecutive year and the majors' collective batting average of .252 is the lowest since the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973).
Perhaps that's part of the reason the Mariners were unsure of how to react. "I think we all took a second and looked around and were like: Did that really happen? And what do we do now?" shortstop Brendan Ryan told the AP.
Indeed, what are we to make of this impressive yet confounding run of no-hitters? Friday's was the 15th in the past three calendar years -- not including Armando Galarraga's infamous 28-out perfect game in 2010 -- the most in any similar stretch since the days before the mound was lowered and the DH implemented to restore some offense to the game.
The easiest answer is: nothing. No-hitters are still too random to ascribe any sort of significant statistical weight to their occurrences. Despite this season's flurry of no-nos, they still make up just four of the 1,742 games played, or roughly 0.2 percent.
Still, the rapidity with which they've come this season is nevertheless an indication that pitchers show no sign of loosening their stranglehold over hitters. But while the collective shine of all these gems may be dulled, individually they can still glow brightly. In fact, each no-hitter this season has had its own rare beauty. The White Sox' Philip Humber, a former phenom gone bust, provided one of the season's signature moments with his perfect game of these same Mariners on April 21. The Angels' Jered Weaver cemented his place in the game's pitching hierarchy by tossing his against the Twins on May 2. Johan Santana threw the season's most courageous no-hitter just last Friday. After missing all of 2011 due to shoulder surgery, Santana threw a career-high 134 pitches to shut down the Cardinals, the National League's best offensive team, for the first no-hitter in Mets history.
Then came Millwood, League and some not-very-extraordinary gentlemen to pitch just the eighth combined no-hitter in baseball history and the second to need a half-dozen pitchers. If it lacked the order and cleanliness we prefer in our historic sports achievements, it nonetheless gave us the chance to witness how sports can still astonish us with amazing, unforeseen moments. Let's see if any man, woman or beast on Saturday can match that.