Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ubaldo's No-No

It happened on the road, in Atlanta. Coors Field, though it has been tempered by the humidor, remains a hitter's paradise, where 8-6 is a much more common score-line than 1-0. The odds of seeing a historic pitching performance in Denver remain slim, the notable exception being Hideo Nomo's gem back in 1996. On the road, though, the Rockies can pitch. As I've pointed out before, they had the best staff in baseball last year, according to Fangraphs metric, Wins Above Replacement.

Today, you may have heard, saw the first no hitter ever thrown by a Rockies pitcher. Ubaldo Jimenez threw almost 130 pitches on a Saturday evening in Atlanta, mowing down the Braves. It wasn't a pretty no-no, but it still counts.

As a fan watching the game, I was surprised when I saw the 0 in the hits column for the Braves in the 5th inning. Jimenez was wild all day, and his errant pitching netted him 6 walks by the day's end. He balked once, he switched from the windup to the stretch mid-game, and he generally looked uncomfortable for much of his outing. Had he given up even one hit, he probably would have been gone after the 6th or 7th.

But some things are sacred in baseball, and the no-hitter is one of them. Ubaldo was given the silent treatment by his teammates and coaches, and the announcers hilariously spent the final three innings talking about the no-hitter without mentioning it explicitly. A fan who knew little about baseball would have been mighty confused about the excitement George Frazier and Drew Goodman carried through the late innings of a seemingly mundane game.

Fittingly, Ubaldo also provided the key hit in this game, a two-out single in the fourth to drive in Brad Hawpe and keep an eventual three-run inning alive. Dexter Fowler deserves some credit as well, for making the only truly difficult defensive play in the game, and in the seventh inning, no less. Fowler tracked down a drive into the left-center gap, making a diving (or falling, anyway) stop, and preserving the effort for Jimenez.

Ubaldo certainly has always had the stuff to pull of a performance like this. If there was any doubt about his status as an ace, it should be completely gone after today. Ubaldo has the stuff, moreover, to do this again someday. Of course, there's a lot of luck involved in throwing a no-hitter, but high-strikeout, groudball pitchers like Jimenez (and, incidentally, Jorge De La Rosa) are the perfect type.

I suspect I'm jumping around a bit in writing this, since I'm more excited than reflective at this just-after-the-game time. As a fan, it's fascinating to watch a real no-hit bid. I've seen a few games come close, but none felt as inevitable as this one did (or is that hindsight?). Even with the wildness, once Jimenez settled down he was on fire. Even so, the emotion is intense. Almost never, as a fan, do you want to see your team pitch more than hit, but I found myself hoping for quick innings from the Rockies offense, as if they might spoil the no-hitter themselves. I found myself, also, more nervous (in that irrational fan kind of way) than I have been since the play-in game against the Padres in the 2007 playoffs.

On some level, a win is a win, and today's game doesn't count for extra in the standings. But that's not totally true, either. Sports are not just about wins and losses; stories matter too, and exceptional performances. I still remember the 20(ish) inning game the Rockies lost to the Padres I attended some three or four years ago. I still remember the first 1-0 contest at Coors, pitched by Jason Jennings. I still remember, vaguely, the Eric Young homer that initiated Colorado to Major League Baseball.

I'll still remember this game, too. From my half-focused, multi-tasking early-inning watching to the fully engrossed, not-letting-Jericha-leave-for-her-get-together ending. And, really, that's what being a fan is all about. Much as I'd love to see a World Series, it's the games - the chance, even if it's one in several thousand, that you'll see your team's first no-hitter on a non-descript April afternoon - that really make baseball what it is. And, even if you don't see a no-hitter, hey, there's worse things than watching baseball.

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