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One-hit wonderment

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  July 25, 2010 10:59 AM

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I imagine you'll forgive me if I pass on the opportunity today to lament Jon Lester's almost perfect nightmare or howl about Hideki Okajima's latest miserable foray into Sauerbeckville. Instead, we're here to ignore the feeling that a likable but undermanned Red Sox team is watching its season melt away and instead focus on a reason we actually enjoy baseball.

Random nonsense topped off with nostalgia, of course. We vowed awhile back to use any spare post-chat hours on Fridays to post a quirky baseball item to wrap up the week. We've even followed through once or twice. Consider this our latest installment, with many more to come. Even if they happen to be posted on Sunday . . .

Nolan Ryan is a favorite at this web address, and not just because he helped keep Cliff Lee from the Yankees. All ballplayers are larger than life when you're a kid; Ryan, with his intimidating heat on the mound and ambling Texas cool away from it, was larger than life to his peers. His 1986 season, when he went 8-16 despite leading the league in ERA (2.76), strikeouts (270), adjusted ERA (142), H/9 (6.5), and K/9 (11.5), was the first time I realized that wins were far from the defining judgment of a pitcher. Yet another baseball lesson born from a Strat-O-Matic addiction.

Ryan is the all-time leader in no-hitters with seven, three more than any other pitcher. (The runner-up is either Sandy Koufax or Joe Cowley; remind me to look it up.) That's pretty much common baseball knowledge; I wouldn't be shocked to learn Joe Morgan is even aware of it. What may not be as well known is that Ryan is also tied for first in one-hitters, with 12.

My interest in his one-hitters was piqued by this snippet in a wildly enjoyable book I just finished reading, Dan Epstein's "Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s." I'm not one to judge a book by it's cover, but I was sold on this one as soon as I saw this. In the chapter on the 1973 season, Epstein notes that Ryan's season for the ages -- two no-hitters, 21 wins, a record 383 strikeouts -- could have been even greater:

Amazingly, Ryan almost pitched a third no-hitter on August 29, against the Yankees at Anaheim Stadium. In the first inning, Yankees catcher Thurman Munson popped a Ryan fastball off the fists toward second base. Angels shortstop Rudy Meoli [whose only claim to fame otherwise is apparently hitting really high pop ups at home plate] and second baseman Sandy Alomar both assumed that the other would field the ball, which dropped untouched into the infield dirt. Munson was safe at first and since neither player had actually touched the ball, the play was officially scored a hit. Thereafter, Ryan set the rest of the Yankees down without a hit, allowing only three more baserunners . . .

Epstein's writeup of Ryan's no-no near-miss left me with one immediate question: How close did he come to turning one of his dozen one-hitters into another no-hitter? Well, since you asked, here is a quick and quirky look at each of Ryan's one-hitters, along with a random picture from the Globe archives of Ryan and the Angels at Fenway in 1974. Do your thing, baseball-reference.com . . .

* * *

0723ryan.jpgApril 18, 1970
Ryan throws his first career one-hitter in his first start of the season against the Phillies, allowing a single to ping hitter Denny Doyle (who would be his teammate in 1974-75 with the Angels) leading off the game. He walked six, whiffed 15, and earned the 7-0 victory over fellow future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning. The two starting pitchers in this one combined for 548 wins, with Ryan (324) winning precisely 100 more than the future Senator from Kentucky. One quirky note: According to baseballreference.com, Ryan is listed at a playing weight of 170, five pounds lighter than Doyle. Let's just say I'm skeptical.

* * *

July 9, 1972
The Red Sox managed both of their baserunners in this one in the first inning, when Tommy Harper led off with a walk and, one out later, Yaz singled to right. But Ryan stranded both runners, striking out the side in the first -- and he enjoyed it so much, he decided to whiff the side in the second and third innings as well. That's right; he recorded his first nine outs via the K, finished with 16, and retired the final 25 hitters he faced en route to a 3-0 win. Just a hunch, but the shadows in at the Big A must have been something that day. Now this is a classic I'd like to see on the MLB Network. (I've given up on ESPN Classic, But Mostly Bowling and Poker.)

* * *

August 29, 1973
Ryan notched his first two career no-hitters earlier in '73, perhaps the finest season of his 26 seasons given that he whiffed -- and this bears mentioning again -- 383 batters in 326 innings. (Somewhere, John Farrell just fainted.) His third career one-hitter was the aforementioned 5-0 win over the Yankees, with Munson getting the cheapo in the first.

* * *

June 27, 1974
Honest, I didn't know this before I started this post, but it happened again: The lone hit allowed by Ryan, a single by the Rangers' Alex Johnson in California's 5-0 win, took place in the first inning. Not to bludgeon the point, but it is sort of amazing: in each of Ryan's first four one-hitters, he did not allow a single hit beyond the first inning. Just plain ridiculous. Ryan isn't the greatest pitcher of all-time, but there's no one in the modern era that I can think of who has more impressive and, in many cases, unprecedented feats.

* * *

remy78.jpgApril 15, 1977
And so the streak ends. In the 10th game of the expansion Seattle Mariners existence, they managed a measly fifth-inning single by catcher Bob Stinson in the host Angels' 5-0 win. An Angels leadoff hitter by the name of Gerald Peter Remy -- you may know him as RemDawg -- matched the Mariners' hit total that day, going 1 for 4 with a run scored and a stolen base. He would be traded to the Red Sox that winter and, of course, never be heard from again.

* * *

May 5, 1978
In a 5-0 victory for the Angels over the visiting Indians, Ryan's no-hit bid was broken up by a fifth-inning single by Joe Posnanski's baseball idol, Duane Kuiper, he of the one career homer and .641 lifetime OPS. The late, great Lyman Bostock doubled the Tribe's output with two hits for California. Bostock, the gregarious 27-year-old outfielder, would die in one of baseball's true modern tragedies little more than three months later. (I don't know what this has to do with Ryan, but Bostock's legacy has always been something of a cause/obsession for me, and he was Ryan's teammate, and that connection is good enough here.)

* * *

July 13, 1979
Ryan had thrown four of his seven no-hitters at this point. This was two outs from being his fifth, but it was busted up by a one-out single in the ninth inning by another future Hall of Famer, Reggie Jackson. We've long believed the other starting pitcher in this game, a guy by the name of Tiant, also belongs in the Hall of Fame, and his performance in this one was vintage late-career El Tiante: 7 2/3 innings, 12 hits, 4 walks, 5 Ks, 3 earned runs, and, surely, 36 different motions for the 36 batters he faced.

* * *

gwynn.jpgAugust 11, 1982
Joe Pittman, Broderick Perkins, Joe Lefebrve, a washed--out Sixto Lezcano . . . not exactly an A-list lineup the Padres ran out there for this one. Hell, you half expect to see Kevin Cash's name in there somewhere. While one of the Padres' better players, four-time All-Star catcher Terry Kennedy, poked the lone hit -- a single in the fifth inning -- there was a relative unknown in the San Diego lineup that day who would go on to achieve great things. In his 24th major league game, Tony Gwynn went 0 for 4, leaving his career hit total at 27. Who -- save for some savvy scouts and perhaps a prospects whiz at a fledgling publication called "Baseball America" -- would have suspected then that there were 3,114 to come, including 19 against Ryan?

* * *

August 3, 1983
Nearly a year to the day after he one-hit the Padres, Ryan did it again, though with little drama. The Padres' hit came on a fifth-inning single by utilityman Tim Flannery, a rich man's Willie Bloomquist who finished his 11-year career with a.652 OPS.

* * *

April 23, 1989
As the president and head honcho of the Rangers, Ryan has gained notice for expressing his belief that, if pitch-counts are not quite the work of the devil (or at least Joe Kerrigan), they at least can hinder the development of young pitchers. In essence, he believes healthy arms are built by throwing, not babying. This particular season -- and this particular game -- provides a telling example of how Ryan's belief was built through experience. It took him 130 pitches to complete this one-hitter -- Nelson Liriano's one-out triple in the ninth busted it up -- and that pitch count was in the middle of the pack for him in the 1989 season, when he was 42 years old. Ryan made 31 starts, and the fewest pitches he threw in any of them? Ninety-nine. The most? One-hundred and 64. Again: 164. That was one of 16 starts in which he threw 130 pitches or more. Did we mention he was 42? Advil really must have worked wonders.

* * *

June 3, 1989
This is Ryan's fifth one-hitter in which the lone knock came in the first inning, and the second in which the leadoff hitter -- in this case, Seattle second baseman Harold Reynolds -- did the honors. We suspect Reynolds, who has made a fine living as a jovial but somewhat insight-challenged baseball analyst since his playing days ended, might describe the situation like this: "When you give up a hit to the first batter, chances are you're not going to pitch a no-hitter." One other note we found amusing: 19-year-old Mariners rookie Ken Griffey Jr. went 0 for 2 with a strikeout, batting fifth behind the one and only Jeffrey Leonard. Two of Griffey's 630 homers came off Ryan; five of Ryan's 5,714 strikeouts came against The Kid. And every one of their showdowns must have been compelling.

* * *

kittle.jpgApril 26, 1990
A good amount of the fun in a silly little undertaking like this is digging through old box scores and being reminded of players who'd been relegated to the dusty vaults of your baseball memories. Ron Kittle was a fun if one-dimensional phenom in the early '80s (a teenaged Keith Law might have warned us about his high strikeout totals, his history of back problems that led to his release from the Dodgers organization, and that it probably didn't bode well that he wore glasses. Prospects were much more of a mystery then.) Kittle pulverized the baseball en route 50 homers in the Pacific Coast League in '82, than won the AL Rookie of the Year award with a 35-homer season for the playoff-bound White Sox in '83. But he batted .215 in his sophomore season, and those old back problems never quite left him alone. He finished with 176 homers in a 10-year career, and there's something just right about his top three comps on baseball-reference.com: Russell Branyan, Steve Balboni, and Bo Jackson. But on April 26, 1990, the second-to-last season of his career, he accomplished something notable for that particular day: he was the only one of 29 White Sox batters to manage a hit off Nolan Ryan. And in the bigger picture, he's one of an exclusive dozen to get the hit in a Ryan Express one-hitter. There's no shame in that bit of baseball minutiae, presuming Rudy Meoli and Sandy Alomar didn't mess this one up too.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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