Monday, June 25, 2007

The Blue Jays have always had bad luck when it comes to no-hitters. I'm not aware of any statistics that show how often a franchise has lost no-hitters in the ninth inning, but the Jays must rank very highly for their proficiency at perpetrating this misfortune. Dustin McGowan pitched a one-hit shutout against the Colorado Rockies today, the only hit he allowed was a lead-off single to Jeff Baker in the ninth. This was the ninth no-hitter negated in the ninth inning for the Blue Jays.

Four of the nine were suffered by the great Dave Stieb, who made a career out of pitching eight no-hit innings. So great was Stieb's love for narrowly failing at throwing no-hitters that he once achieved the feat in consecutive starts in 1988. On September 24, playing in the cursed old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Stieb was one out away from a no-hitter. The ageless Julio Franco (he's still playing at 48), as deathless as The Mistake by the Lake was dead, dampened the party on this occasion. The next week, at home in That Other Mistake by the Lake, Stieb again pitched an astonishing 8.2 innings without allowing a hit. In an equally astonishing feat, Jim Traber of the Orioles would again deny Stieb, his third foiled no-hitter.

The following August, Stieb retired 26 consecutive batters against the Yankees before Roberto Kelly doubled, Steve Sax singled him home and Stieb escaped with a 2-1 victory. In September 1990, Stieb returned to Cleveland's Municipal Stadium and redeemed himself by inducing the wily Jerry Browne to line out to Junior Felix. Four years earlier, before pitching 8 no-hit innings became his knack, he had unwittingly titled his book Tomorrow I'll Be Perfect after just one ruined no-hitter.

Jim Clancy and Jimmy Key preceded Stieb and were followed by David Cone and Roy Halladay, so clearly McGowan is in good company. The only one of the nine that I saw was Halladay's attempt on September 27, 1998. Halladay was making his second major-league start against the Detroit Tigers. His perfect game was ruined by an error, but his no-hitter was intact until Bobby Higginson homered in the ninth inning. The Jays still won, their 88th win of that perplexing year, still the most they have won in the 13 seasons since their last championship.

As for Halladay, though he eventually fulfilled his promise as a dominant starting pitcher, the no-hitter was only an indication of his immense talent when he set a major-league record for the highest ERA (10.64) by an pitcher who threw at least 50 innings. McGowan, like Halladay, is a first-round draft pick with great potential but a slow development. Unlike Halladay, his flashes of brilliance have been rarer: in his last start, he recorded 5 outs and conceded 6 runs.

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