Saberhagen no-hitter

U.L.’s Toothpick: 25 Years Ago, Bret Saberhagen Made History With No-Hitter

Bret Saberhagen has a good case for the title of best pitcher in Royals history. Two Cy Young awards, a World Series MVP award, lowest WHIP in team history, and best ERA of any starter in team history is an impressive resume. And 25 years ago Friday, he capped that resume with the fourth, and still most recent, no-hitter in team history, a 7-0 triumph over the Chicago White Sox at Royals Stadium.

Beforehand, there was nothing special about this game, just another Monday evening game between two teams with little to play for. Just two weeks earlier, Chicago had been 65-45 (following a no-hitter thrown by Chicago’s Wilson Alvarez against Baltimore) and just a game out of first place. But they had lost 12 of their last 14 games, and entered this series with a six-game losing streak. The no-hitter would leave them eight games out of first with 37 games left, meaning their season was essentially over.

Meanwhile, the Royals were even further back in the AL West. After a 15-22 start to the season got manager John Wathan fired, the team continued to flounder under new manager Hal McRae, entering the All-Star break at 36-44. But soon after, they won 13 of 16 games to climb above .500. They would reach their high-water mark of the season on August 14, at 60-52. But they had lost eight of 11 before the White Sox came to town, and would finish the season at 82-80, which was only good for sixth place in a very tough division.

As for Saberhagen, he was doing his best to fill his role as the team’s ace. Saberhagen famously had a pattern of excelling in odd-numbered years, and was looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued 1990 season. And despite the team’s slow start, he was well on his way to doing so. In his first 13 starts of the year, he went 6-3 with a 2.96 ERA and a typically excellent 44:16 K:BB ratio. And he was still a workhorse, averaging seven innings in those starts and throwing three complete games. But in that 13th start, on June 12 in Baltimore, Saberhagen allowed eight hits and six runs in five innings. There was a little more to it: Saberhagen was very good through four innings, and entered the fifth with an 8-1 lead. But on his first pitch of the fifth, he felt tightness in his right shoulder. He got through the inning, but went on the disabled list soon after. He would miss a month of the season. When he returned, it took him a while to regain effectiveness.  In four July starts, he had a combined 6.55 ERA in 22 innings.

But when the calendar turned to August, Saberhagen turned the page. In back to back starts against Cleveland, he pitched two complete games, allowing just one run and striking out 17. Of course, thanks to the Royals’ sometimes inconsistent offense, he only got one win out of those two games. In his next start, in Fenway Park, he pitched seven innings, allowing just one run. And then he dominated the Yankees at Royals Stadium, striking out eight in seven innings and allowing just two runs. So going into this game against the White Sox, he was on a roll.

The White Sox lineup on this night featured two future Hall of Famers (Carlton Fisk and Frank Thomas), plus another guy who should be in (Tim Raines), plus three guys who would be All-Stars at some point in their careers (Joey Cora, Ozzie Guillen, and Lance Johnson). So even though they were slumping, this was a formidable foe.

Saberhagen began the first inning with strikeouts of  Raines and Cora and then got a harmless groundout to second baseman Terry Shumpert by Thomas. The Royals got on the board quickly in the bottom of the first against White Sox starter Charlie Hough. The veteran knuckleballer had been a Royal-killer in his career, but here he allowed a single and a walk to start the inning. After a passed ball, George Brett hit a sacrifice fly. A Jim Eisenreich single and Todd Benzinger’s groundout gave the Royals a 2-0 lead.

Saberhagen retired Ventura on a groundout, then struck out Fisk looking for two outs in the second inning. After three strikeouts in the first five hitters, Royals play-by-play man Denny Matthews told the radio audience that Saberhagen had no-hitter stuff on this evening.

“I get feelings about things. I thought he did have no-hit stuff. And he did. He didn’t have it in the last three or four innings. He struck out only one after the fifth.”—Matthews, quoted by Randy Covitz in the Kansas City Star, August 27, 1991

In the third inning, Chicago catcher Ron Karkovice smacked a line drive down the right-field line that landed just a bit in foul territory. He then worked a walk, giving the White Sox their first runner. But groundouts by Guillen and Raines ended the inning.

The Royals padded their lead in the bottom of the third, with Kirk Gibson and Brett starting the inning with singles. Both runners moved up on an Eisenreich fly ball and scored on Benzinger’s single. Bill Pecota followed with a run-scoring double for a 5-0 lead. After a Brent Mayne single, Chicago went to the bullpen. Reliever Ken Patterson got David Howard to end the inning.

Saberhagen seemed unfazed by the long half-inning, getting three groundouts in the fourth. The Royals again added to the lead. With one out, Brian McRae was hit by a pitch and scored on Gibson’s triple. Eisenreich drove Gibson in with a sacrifice fly for a 7-0 lead.

With the big lead, Saberhagen could focus on getting strikes and getting outs. But the fifth inning would be marked by controversy. Following a Fisk line drive back to the mound, Pasqua stepped in. The left-handed hitter drilled a high fly ball deep to left-center field. Gibson, who was never really known for his defense, turned and ran as fast as his beat-up knees could carry him. Just as he reached the warning track, he reached up and…well, he got a glove on it. The ball ticked off Gibson’s glove, and Pasqua reached second.

On the big scoreboard, a “1” appeared in the White Sox hit column. Saberhagen saw this, turned around, and went back to work. But in the press box, official scorer Del Black, who had covered baseball for the Kansas City Star for years, was watching the televised replays. After a minute, he had a ruling: error. The “1” was restored to a “0” and the crowd of 25,164 cheered.

“I thought the ball was catchable. I didn’t make the call until I saw two angles on the replay. I thought he was there. He didn’t have to jump, just reach up. I thought it ticked his glove. It didn’t look like he was laboring to get to it or catch it.”—Black, quoted by Dick Kaegel in the Kansas City Star, August 27, 1991

“You can pretty well tell by the crowd’s reaction. I heard the crowd and I figured what happened.”—Saberhagen, quoted by the Associated Press, August 27, 1991

“I didn’t really see it happen. I touched first base and when I rounded it, the ball was on the ground. But people told me it was questionable. There are a lot of balls catchable that are hits. In this circumstance, I’m sure the game had a lot to do with his call.”—Pasqua, quoted by Dick Kaegel in the Kansas City Star, August 27, 1991

“It’s got to be an error. It’s the right call. I could’ve caught the ball. It was waaay in (the glove).”—Gibson, quoted by Dick Kaegel in the Kansas City Star, August 27, 1991

But here, judge for yourself:

With a runner on second, no matter how he got there, Saberhagen needed to focus. But with two outs, Karkovice—that guy again!—pulled a line drive down the left-field line. But it hooked foul before landing in the bleachers. Saberhagen proceeded to strike out Karkovice, completing five no-hit innings.

After an uneventful sixth inning, the sense of drama heightened.

“The funny thing is that once we got to the seventh inning — and I’d been at that point a few times before in my career (with a no-hitter) and I’d never been able to finish it off — I started to think about getting that darn thing. So at that point, I told myself I was going to go at every batter like he was the last batter of the game.”—Saberhagen, quoted by Jeffrey Flanagan, Fox Sports Kansas City, July 16, 2014

Meanwhile, around the diamond, the Royals players were keenly aware of what was happening. On this night, the Royals’ lineup featured a rookie (shortstop Howard) and two players in their first full season—center fielder McRae and catcher Brent Mayne.

“I was kind of hoping I’d have a chance to take a hit away. That way I’d always remember that no-hitter for something special I contributed. I was ready for anything.”—Howard, quoted by Jeffrey Flanagan in in the Kansas City Star, August 27, 1991

“Every sign I put down I felt got more important because I didn’t expect him to be thinking super-clearly. In the latter innings, I expected him to just get the ball and throw it. to maintain his focus. I was really nervous, to be honest with you. But it was a positive nervous. Not like, ‘Oh, man, I can’t mess this up.’ More like a good adrenaline between the two of us you knew was just going to keep going strong.”—Mayne, quoted by Gib Twyman in in the Kansas City Star, August 27, 1991

Wouldn’t you know it? The first batter of the seventh inning was Thomas. Although he was also in his first full season, he had already established himself as an offensive force, coming into this game with a .324/.452/.567 line (remember, this was 1991, not 1999). He jumped on the first pitch he saw, drilling a line drive to center, right at McRae, who appeared frozen for a second.

“It was knuckling right at me. Thomas hits some balls with weird spin. I started going back, but then I had to come in. Once I spotted the spin, I thought I had it.”—McRae, quoted by Jeffrey Flanagan in in the Kansas City Star, August 27, 1991

And he did. A harmless fly ball and a routine grounder later, and it was on to the eighth.

Pasqua, leading off the eighth, drew a walk. Whether it was nerves or a little extra caution, Saberhagen would actually fall behind seven of the last eight hitters he faced. But Johnson flied out on a 1-0 pitch for the first out of the inning. Karkovice made his worst contact of the night, a weak grounder to third. And up stepped Guillen. Although the White Sox shortstop was hitting .262 entering this game, he had Saberhagen concerned.

“He’s gotten hits on pitches over his head against me. I really wasn’t sure what to throw. He’s just a free swinger.”—Saberhagen, quoted by Dick Kaegel in the Kansas City Star, August 27, 1991

Guillen smacked a grounder right back up the middle. Hard. Saberhagen speared it and made the easy toss to first. Good thing, as Howard would later say he couldn’t have reached it. That ended the eighth, and now the pressure was really on. The crowd was cheering every strike loudly and grumbling with every called ball.

To complete his date with history, Saberhagen would have to get through two speedsters and a thumper in the ninth. Raines led off and hit a grounder to second. One down. Cora hit a popup to Eisenreich in short right field. Two down. Up stepped Thomas. After watching a ball sail by, Thomas swung at a curve that just kept breaking downward. He hit a one-hopper right to Shumpert—it couldn’t have been thrown to him any better—and the second baseman made an easy flip to first to complete the no-hitter.

“The big thing tonight, he established the fastball inside unbelievably well. That set up his curveball, which we primarily just tried to keep down, and they couldn’t handle it. Frank is a great hitter and all, but that was an unhittable pitch. Ninety-nine times out of 100, nobody hits that ball.”— Mayne, quoted by Gib Twyman in in the Kansas City Star, August 27, 1991

Saberhagen raised his arms in triumph before being mobbed by his teammates. Mayne leaped into his pitcher’s arms. The crowd roared like the Royals had just won the World Series.

In the postgame afterglow, Saberhagen reflected on his achievement while receiving congratulatory messages from friends, family, and even baseball commissioner Fay Vincent. The World Series title, the Series MVP award, the Cy Youngs, and now a no-hitter. He had just become only the third pitcher in major league history to win the Cy Young, World Series MVP, and throw a no-no, joining Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax.

“It’s another thing to look back on. The World Series championship is what you strive for. It’s not tennis, not golf. It’s a team sport. The individual goals you achieve are great but there’s nothing like a World Series championship. I’ve still got nine fingers to put rings on.”—Saberhagen, quoted by quoted by Dick Kaegel in the Kansas City Star, August 28, 1991

The White Sox were gracious in defeat. Well, mostly. Thomas autographed the bat and ball from the final out. The next day, Guillen would send a bottle of champagne to the Royals’ clubhouse. Saberhagen also asked the White Sox players to sign the lineup card, and they did, except for Lance Johnson.

No one knew it at the time, but that would be Saberhagen’s last real hurrah in a Royals uniform. He would win three games in September and finish the year with a 13-8 record, and in the offseason he was dealt to the New York Mets with Pecota for Gregg Jefferies, Kevin McReynolds, and Keith Miller. It’s hard to believe that the Royals have not had a no-hitter since then; they’ve only even been involved in one since then, when Jon Lester did it to them in 2008.

“They’ll get another one soon. I mean, look at guys like (Yordano) Ventura and (Danny) Duffy. They got great stuff. It’ll happen again soon.”—Saberhagen, quoted by Jeffrey Flanagan, Fox Sports Kansas City, July 16, 2014

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