Means to an End, or My First No-Hitter
Photo: Erik Lundegaard
The view from Section 325, as the Orioles celebrate something that hadn't happened since 1969
May 5, 2021
We noticed how good he was immediately. First Mariners batter in the bottom of the 1st, Mitch Haniger, whom we’d just seen in a between-innings video talking about his first call up to the bigs (in 2016 with the Diamondbacks), as well as his first hit (a 2-run triple off Noah Syndergaard), saw three pitches and sat down. Then Ty France got to 3-2 and K’ed looking. Then Kyle Seager with a dribbler to first.
“All first-pitch strikes,” I said to Jeff.
We were 300-level behind home plate, shaded first-base side, row 9, very close to the season-ticket seats I share with a group of great baseball fans led by a close, personal friend of Raquel Welch. Jeff and I spent the bottom of the 1st riffing off that Haniger video. He was impressed that the triple was off Syndergaard; I was impressed that it was a triple. “The most exciting play in baseball,” I said, repeating the aphorism. “Play at the plate,” Jeff said, as his choice for most exciting play in baseball. “Close play at the plate,” he amended. “Well, sure,” I said, “if you add context. I mean, really, the most exciting play in baseball is a close play at the plate in the bottom of the 9th inning of the 7th game of the World Series. Context-less, I’ll take a triple.”
Top of the 2nd was a little rough for M’s starter Yusei Kikuchi and the M’s defense: single, fielder’s choice, stolen base, strikeout. Two outs, guy on second, and it’s the bottom of their order, the .100 hitters—of which, by the way, the M’s have a lot. That was the conversation before the game began: How many guys in our starting lineup are hitting in the .100s? Turns out: four. And hitting over .300? Zero, of course. This is Mariners country.
Anyway, the O’s number 8 hitter, D.J. Stewart, blooped one to shallow left, just past shortstop J.P. Crawford, who mistakenly threw home to try to nab the beautifully named Ryan Mountcastle, allowing Stewart to go to second. Then their number 9 hitter, Ramon Urias, hit a liner to left and same deal. But this time the throw home was cut off and Urias was tossed at second. But it was still 2-0, Orioles.
“Should’ve been one run if we’d played that right,” Jeff said.
The Orioles pitcher, John Means, began the game with a 1.70 ERA, much better than Kikuchi’s 4.40, and in the bottom of the 2nd he kept throwing first-pitch strikes and getting outs; line out, pop out, strike out. I don’t think he threw a first-pitch ball until he faced Sam Haggerty, ol’ #0, in the 3rd. He struck him out anyway. Except the ball broke early and got past catcher Pedro Severino, and Haggerty, a speedy kid, made it to first.
“Hey, a baserunner!” I said.
Next pitch, Haggerty was thrown out trying to steal second.
“Or not,” I said.
We didn’t know how big a moment all that would turn out to be.
This was my second game of the season—and thus my second game since the pandemic shrunk all of our lives. First game was Sunday, a beautiful sunny Sunday against the Angels. For that one, I sat 100 level, hoping to get close-up looks at the Angels’ triumvirate of great stars (Shohei Ohtani) and future Hall of Famers (Mike Trout and Albert Pujols). Trout began the game hitting .400-something and went 0-3 with a walk. Pujols began the game at Mendoza and went 0-3 with 2 Ks. Ohtani got hit by a pitch in his first at-bat, promptly stole two bases, but also went 0-3. Meanwhile, the M’s scored two runs on an RBI single by Dylan Moore who was hitting something like .137, and two sacrifices following a leadoff double by a backup catcher hitting .190. We won 2-zip.
“That’s baseball,” Jeff said, shrugging.
“And by the end of the game,” I said. “I was already sick of people.”
“There was a guy sitting like four rows behind me that sounded like the most sour, nitpicky dad at a T-ball game. Pick up the ball, jesus! kind of thing. And then in another section there was a guy, every time Pujols came up, he bellowed ‘YOU SUCK!’ Which is not cool.”
“Definitely not cool.”
“Show some respect.”
I got Ivars fish-and-chips and a beer, Jeff got a soft pretzel and a beer. We talked kids (his), podcasts (Marc Maron), and the Beatles. He mentioned a recent biography of the Beatles he’d read called “Tune In” by Mark Lewinson, which was the first volume in a three-volume series on the Beatles. A deep dive.
“The first volume ends in 1963, when…” Jeff said, then blanked.
“When they got their first UK No. 1?”
“I think so.”
“So before ‘She Loves You’ and Beatlemania hit.”
“He’s Robert Caro-ing the Beatles.”
“LBJ biographer. Been writing about him for the last, whatever, 40 years? He’s done four volumes, I think, and now LBJ is in the White House, and people are worried Caro won’t finish before he dies.”
“This guy’s younger than that,” Jeff said. He looked him up on his phone. “Oh. He’s 62. And the second volume was supposed to come out last year but didn’t. So maybe he is another Robert Caro.”
All the while, Means was blowing away the M's. “He’s still has a no-hitter going,” Jeff said in the 4th (two pop-outs to short and a K), and the 5th (foul out to first, line out to SS, K) and the 6th (K, ground out to catcher, fly out to center).
In retrospect, the 3rd inning was our best chance. Not only did we get our lone baserunner (for one pitch) but the other two batters actually hit the ball out of the infield. In the entire game, only four ball were caught by the outfield: two in the 3rd (center, right), one in the 6th (center), and one in the 8th (left). Everything else was dribblers, popups and strikeouts. Twelve strikeouts in all, without a walk, and 25 first-pitch strikes.
“Are you rooting for a no-hitter?” I asked at one point.
“Why not?“ Jeff said. ”Even if we get a hit, it’s not like we’ll come back.”
“What do you mean? We’re only down 2-0.”
“3-0,” he reminded me. In the 7th, Pat Valaika had rocketed one into the left-field bleachers. A minute later, it was 6-0, when the beautifully named Ryan Mountcastle hit a 3-run shot.
Actually I was wrong earlier. Our best chance to break up the no-hitter was in the bottom of the 8th. That’s when Kyle Lewis rocketed one to left and. For a moment I thought it might be gone. And I had actually mixed feelings. I know. I still feel bad about it. It’s like when you’re watching a U-boat movie and suddenly find yourself rooting for the Germans, and you’re like “Oh man, this is wrong,” but you keep doing it. Same here. I found myself rooting for the no-hitter against my team. When Lewis’ rocket to left was caught at the warning track, I felt disappointment. And relief.
“I don’t think I’ve been at a game that went this long into a no-hitter,” I said. I kept expecting a hit to get through. Didn’t that always happen? It did to me. But then Murphy struck out swinging (on 3-2) and Evan White struck out swinging (on 1-2), and we were onto the 9th.
The second-best chance we had to break up the no-hitter was our last chance. In the 9th, after Dylan Moore fouled out to third, and Sean Haggerty struck out swinging, J.P. Crawford came to the plate. He was batting ninth even though he’s hitting .250-ish, which is third-best on our team. For this team, he’s basically the equivalent of Edgar Martinez on the 1996 Mariners. And on the first pitch from Means, he rocketed one to left. For a second, I thought it might get through. But then their shortstop Urias was there, and the Baltimore Orioles were suddenly celebrating the team’s first single-pitcher no-hitter since Jim Palmer blanked the Oakland A’s in 1969. (They had a combined no-hitter in 1991.) Apparently it was the longest single-pitcher no-hitter drought in baseball.
You’re welcome, Baltimore.
It was also baseball history. Jeff and I watched something that had never happened before.
Yep, just that dropped third strike.
I am worried about my guys. According to Art Thiel, they began the game hitting the Seattle area code (.206) and they ended it near the Mendoza line (.201). I know this is a rebuilding year, but I didn’t think we were rebuilding back to 1979.
Thiel uses the phrase “the profoundly unheralded John Means,” but we knew going in he would be tough: 3-0, 1.70 ERA. But this tough? He’s now 4-0 with a 1.37 ERA, and 50 Ks against 10 walks. And one complete game. Which is the first complete game of his career. That’s right. John Means’ no-hitter, his near perfect game, was also the first shutout and the first complete game he’d thrown in the Majors. So maybe Thiel was right?
This article is cross-posted at eriklundegaard.com