You can’t predict baseball, but you can predict no-hitters—or at least, you can reasonably assume that, at least once a season, a starting pitcher will be jumping for joy with his teammates on a mound after nine innings with zeros on the board. MLB has seen at least one no-hitter every single season since 2005, and only three years in the last 30—’05, 2000, and 1989—have gone by without the feat being achieved. No-hitters belong to the game’s resident demigods like Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer, and to names long forgotten like Bud Smith and Chris Heston. Some are dominant and some are tightrope acts, but they can and usually do happen on any given night.
There was no real reason, though, to expect A’s lefty Sean Manaea to be the first man to record a no-hitter in 2018. Not because of anything wrong with Manaea—he’s a good if inconsistent pitcher who doesn’t throw particularly hard but does have a solid changeup and a wipeout slider—but because of his opposition in Oakland on Saturday night. The task in front of the 26-year-old Indiana native was one that virtually no pitcher has been able to solve this year: the Red Sox’ lineup, which came into the game leading the league in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS+ and was third in home runs. Winners of eight straight and off to an absurd 17–2 start, Boston has crushed everything in its path.
It figures, then, that Manaea would so thoroughly dismantle the game’s best offense, because that’s baseball. Over nine innings and 108 pitches, he kept Boston off the board save two walks and an error, striking out 10 in one of the better outings you’re likely to see all season, especially given the level of competition. The resulting gem, a 3–0 win for Oakland, is 2018’s first no-hitter and the seventh in Athletics franchise history—the first since Dallas Braden stomped and hollered his way to a perfect game in 2010.
History didn’t come without controversy though, as Manaea was the beneficiary of a scoring decision and an umpiring call that kept the no-no intact. The first came in the fifth inning, when Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon popped a ball up to shallow leftfield. A’s shortstop Marcus Semien raced out for it and tried to basket catch it over his shoulder but bobbled the ball in his glove and dropped it. That was ruled an error, and probably deservedly so, given that Semien got glove on ball.
The tougher call came in the sixth, when Boston leftfielder Andrew Benintendi bounced a ball off the dirt in front of home plate that slowly rolled toward first base. First baseman Matt Olson scooped it up 10 feet in front of the bag, then was forced to swipe at a passing Benintendi, who successfully dodged the tag on the edge of the baseline and slid in for an infield single. That is, until the umpires conferred, determining that Benintendi had gone out of the baseline, and ruled him out.
Perhaps a different crew would have let the call stand, but looking at the play, it does seem like Benintendi went too far into foul territory while trying to reach first. Benintendi, for his part, was angry about the overturn after the game, telling reporters he felt the A’s got the call only because Manaea was working on a no-hitter. (Ironically enough, Manaea himself thought he’d already lost his no-no earlier in the game, as he thought that Semien’s bobble in the fifth had been ruled a hit.)
Either way, that temporary infield single ended up being Boston’s last gasp. Manaea retired the next eight batters in order before Benintendi once again caused trouble by drawing a two-out walk in the ninth. His pitch count past 100, Manaea fell behind Hanley Ramirez, 2–0, then threw a changeup on the outside corner that Ramirez hit hard but right at Semien at short, who flipped to Jed Lowrie at second base to put Manaea’s name into the history books.
Manaea used just three pitches to keep Boston off balance, mixing a four-seam fastball, changeup and slider to great effect. He yielded 15 swings and misses, and made hash of the vaunted pair of Ramirez and J.D. Martinez, who struck out four times in seven plate appearances combined. Leon, Benintendi and Mookie Betts—who led off the game with a walk—were the only Sox hitters to reach. And if Manaea no-hitting Boston’s high-powered lineup weren’t unexpected enough, his teammates backed him up by jumping early on Chris Sale, last year’s Cy Young runner-up, taking a 1–0 lead in the first on an RBI double by Lowrie and extending the advantage with single runs in the third and fifth. Making up for his error, Semien paced the A’s with two hits, including a solo home run, a walk and three runs scored.
It’s Manaea, though, who’s Saturday’s star, and deservedly so for quieting a team that was inspiring all kinds of awe in the early going. It’s also the best sign yet that Manaea—a highly touted prospect with the Royals and the centerpiece of the deal that sent Ben Zobrist to Kansas City for that team’s World Series run in 2015—is coming into his own as Oakland’s ace. The no-hitter drops his ERA on the season to a miniscule 1.23, and through 36 2/3 innings, he’s struck out 30 against just six walks. It’s the kind of performance that makes the A’s, now 10–11 on the year, feel a bit more like a dark-horse wild-card contender.
It’s also a fun reminder of the weirdness this game will throw at you without warning. On any given night, you can get a no-hitter. Maybe it’ll be against a super-powered offense by a pitcher with good stuff but shaky results but who has every single thing working. Where Manaea goes from here is anyone’s guess. You can predict no-hitters, but everything else in this game remains a joyful mystery.