Although the no-hitter is an unusual event at the major league level, the feat can hardly be considered rare. Even with the revised rules stating that a pitcher (or pitchers) must pitch nine innings without giving up a hit to be awarded the mantle of legitimate no-hitter, there has been at least one pitched in MLB every season since 2006. And, in the modern history of the game, there has never been a stretch longer than two seasons without one being pitched. Perfection, on the other hand, is rare, with only 20 games in MLB history seeing the pitcher allow no baserunners.
In the minors, the rules for determining what is a no-hitter are less stringent: If a pitcher (or pitchers) has given up zero hits once the game has come to completion – whether a rain-shortened five innings, a typical double header length of seven innings, a regulation nine, or even an extra-long 16-inning game – it is designated a no-hitter. Unsurprisingly, every season throughout the minor league season – with its seven levels of play in affiliated baseball and numerous independent leagues – has featured multiple no-hitters. In 2016, there were 25 recorded no-nos. In less than one month of play in 2017, four have been recorded. But perfection is still rare. Despite all the extra games and fewer rules, only five perfect games had been pitched in MiLB since 2010. Only a pair – Justin Germano’s 2011 effort for AAA Columbus and Matt Sergey’s perfection for Washington in the independent Frontier League in 2014 – were single-pitcher, nine-inning perfectos. Last week, that number doubled to four.
Entering last Saturday night’s game (4/22) against the Mobile BayBears, Tyler Mahle had made the best of his three Southern League starts in 2017. Picking up wins in all three of his appearances for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, the 22-year-old Cincinnati prospect had allowed only two runs on five hits and five walks over 17 ⅔ innings. In each game, Mahle threw between 86 and 88 pitches while throwing exactly 55 for strikes.
On Saturday, Mahle also threw 88 pitches, but those pitches were able to bring him the full complement of 27 outs. Mahle was firing on all cylinders, throwing only 20 pitches that umpire Lewis Williams deemed outside the strike zone. In the first six frames, Mahle utilized his outfielders and his own punch-out power to neutralize the BayBears – with half of the first 18 outs being caught in the outfield and a further six going down by way of the K. But in the final third of the game, Mobile couldn’t get anything out of the infield. The final nine outs consisted of a liner to first, two strikeouts, two popouts, and four grounders – the final one tapped back to Mahle, who threw to first baseman Eric Jagielo to complete perfection.
While Mahle made the game look easy, any imperfection could have meant the Blue Wahoo singing the blues with a loss. Pensacola finished their offensive night with 22 consecutive outs and had only a pair of hits in the game. Both, however, came in the second inning, in which a leadoff double by Aristides Aquino and a two-out single by Joe Hudson brought in the only run of the night.
This was not Mahle’s first flirtation with perfection. In his final high-A start for the Daytona Tortugas last season on June 13, Mahle set down the first seven Jupiter Hammerheads he faced. Then one errant pitch went a little too far inside, hitting Brian Schales. Mahle induced the next batter, Justin Bohn, to ground into a 5-4-3 double play to end the inning. The righty would not allow another batter to reach base, facing the minimum 27 after striking out Bohn in the bottom of the ninth and picking up his first professional no-no as Daytona defeated Jupiter 4-0. In this effort, Mahle was slightly less efficient, needing 105 pitches to go the distance with only six punchouts. But the effort was enough for the Reds to promote the right-hander to AA for his next start ten days later.
Only three days after Mahle’s perfecto, 22-year-old left hander Domenic Mazza accomplished the same feat for the A-Ball Augusta GreenJackets. Amazingly, it was the first nine-inning perfect game ever to be pitched in the venerable South Atlantic League.
Unlike Mahle – who had been pitching very well to start the 2017 season – Mazza had struggled in his first three starts. In his first start of the season, Mazza surrendered seven earned runs in just 2 ⅔ innings. In his second outing, Domenic lasted four innings, allowing three runs on eight hits. In his third start, Mazza went five innings and picked up a no decision, allowing two unearned runs on three hits and two walks in his 81 pitch effort. With 18 hits, four walks, and a dozen runs given up over his three starts, the Giants organization was simply hoping for a good start as Mazza made his way to the mound on Tuesday against the Lexington Legends.
Staked to a four-run lead after the top of the first inning, Mazza began his pursuit of perfection by getting Khalil Lee to strikeout looking. A ground out and an infield popup followed, and Mazza had gotten the first three men. Three more grounders followed in the second, and another three ground ball were turned into outs in the third. Mazza would take matters into his own hands in the fourth, with three swinging Ks. He would follow with two more swinging strikeouts to begin the fifth before Meibrys Viloria became the first Legend to leave the infield, lifting a fly out to right. In the sixth, Mazza induced two groundouts and a outfield fly. The seventh saw Khalil Lee whiff for the third time, as well as a foul popout and an outfield fly. The eighth saw Mazza’s ninth K of the day – one more than the total in his first three games – an outfield fly and another foul popout. Lexington would end the legendary night with three straight outfield flies, with centerfielder Ashford Fulmer catching the final ball off of Ricky Aracena’s bat to finish Mazza’s masterpiece. While Mahle had utilized only 88 pitches in his perfecto, Mazza was even stingier, throwing only 85 pitches against the Legends.
Mazza’s perfection was the first seen in the South Atlantic League since Chuck Tiffany pitched a seven-inning perfecto for Columbus on May 20, 2004 – 17 days after Tiffany had combined with Marcos Carvajal on a seven-inning no-hitter. But Mazza’s nine innings of perfection lies alone. Since the current incarnation of the South Atlantic League was formed out of the remnants of the Western Carolinas League in 1980, Mazza’s effort was no-hitter number 105 for the league – but it was the only nine-inning perfecto – solo or combined – ever thrown in the Sally.
Does this double dip of perfection portend a slew of dominating performances for pitchers in the coming months? Probably not. Nine-inning perfect games are just not a normal part of the baseball world. Since Tomo Ohka began the 2000s with a perfecto on June, 1, 2000, Minor League Baseball has tallied only a dozen additional nine-inning, no-runner efforts. It is the first time since 2004 (when Chris Coughlin of Burlington in the Midwest League and Keith Ramsey of Kinston in the Carolina League accomplished the feat) that MiLB has seen two full-time perfectos in the same season. The last time perfection occurred twice in the same month was in June of 1999, when Marcos Castillo of San Bernardino of the California League stymied Lake Elsinore on the 14th and was followed by Eric Ireland of the Kissimmee Cobras of the Florida State League, who kept all of St. Petersburg’s men off the bases on the 23rd. Ireland’s perfection was the final perfect game of the 1900s in minor league ball.
But we certainly hope that the unusual does happen. After all, the last time the minor leagues had more than two pitchers accomplish nine-innings of perfection appears to be 1950, when Anthony Segzda, Harry Clark, Marlin Stuart, and James Pomykala all accomplished the feat – four of an amazing 73 no-hitters in the vast expanse of the minor leagues that season. As fans of the unusual, we can only hope to be so lucky.