Pitching a no hitter is a tall task in the big leagues with the increasing focus on pitch counts and bullpen specialization. When it happens in the minors, it’s often the result of teamwork. Brandon Magee chronicles a night in which two teams, in two different part of the country, went deep into the game for a possible second double no-no of the season for the minor leagues.
How many times a season do teams in the minor leagues complete a no-hit bid? The answer is probably larger than one would expect. Entering play on Tuesday, August 9, there had already been 21 no-hitters within the expanse of minor league baseball; 19 in the various leagues affiliated with MLB – from the rookies in the Gulf Coast League to the veterans of the International League – and two from the independent minors. Twice in 2015 two different teams completed no-hitters on the same day. It has already happened once this season: On May 20, 2016 a trio of Pensacola Blue Wahoos locked down the Jacksonville Suns over seven frames, while in the Independent Frontier League Kramer Champlin of the Traverse City Beach Bums completed a nine-inning no-no over the Joliet Slammers. Tuesday, August 9th saw the chance for it to happen again, the gauntlet – and no hitters – were being thrown in Clinton, Iowa and Round Rock, Texas. Did the second double no-no day of the season occur?
6:31 PM – Clinton, Iowa
Pedro Vasquez threw a first pitch strike to Luis Barrera of the visiting Beloit Snappers. Vazquez, a 20-year-old right-hander, was making just his fifth full-season start of the season for the Clinton LumberKings and with 50 innings in the book this season and a 92-pitch effort two starts previous, Vasquez was scheduled to only go three innings. But, what a three innings he had. After a ten-pitch marathon with Barrera that resulted in a strikeout, the righty threw only five more pitches in the inning to get a Jesus Lopez whiff and a ground out by Trent Gilbert.
After the LumberKings picked up a run in the bottom of the first, Vasquez lost the perfect game as he struck out the cleanup hitter Chris Iriart on a pitch that went sailing past catcher Arturo Nieto. No matter, Vasquez forced Brett Sidall into a ground out that forced Iriart at second, induced Skye Bolt to sky to center, and then Nieto ended the inning by gunning down Sidall on an attempted steal. The third inning was easy as the bottom of the order went down in order on a flyout, a strikeout, and another flyout. Vazquez exited with a 2-0 lead having thrown 40 pitches, 30 for strikes.
7:07 PM Round Rock, Texas
Yohander Mendez of the Round Rock Express threw a strike to the Nashville Sounds Jaycob Brugman as the game commenced in Texas. Although Mendez would have a heck of a game himself – going five scoreless innings while allowing a double and three walks, the story of the night was his opposite number, the recently acquired Jharel Cotton.
In the bottom of the first, Cotton served notice that this night might be special. Drew Robinson went down on strikes, seeing only four pitches. Hanser Alberto also whiffed on four pitches. Brett Nicholas saw one extra pitch, but he too went back to the dugout a victim of the K.
The second inning was another express inning for Cotton. Joey Gallo came up to bat first, and was a victim of a six-pitch whiff. Jared Hoying became Cotton’s fifth victim, going down swinging in five pitches. Matt Duffy tried to change the Round Rock luck, flying out to center on the first pitch he saw. In the third, the Express continued to be baffled by Cotton. Ronald Guzman grounded out on the third pitch he saw. Kyle Kubitza went first pitch swinging, grounding out to second. Doug Bernier looked at two strikes before swinging past a third, becoming the sixth strikeout victim for Jharel. But, after three innings, there was still no score in Texas.
4th Inning – Clinton, Iowa
Joey Strain, normally a late-inning reliever for the LumberKings, relieved Vasquez. Facing the top of the order, Luis Barrera tried to change things up by bunting for a hit on the second pitch, but to no avail. Lopez and Gilbert followed with ground outs as Strain barely broke a sweat, recording three outs on seven pitches. Strain continued to roll in the fifth, needing only ten pitches total while also whiffing two .
While the perfect game had already been lost on the wild-pitch strikeout, the LumberKings pitchers had faced the minimum batters through five. That changed with the first batter of the sixth. Justin Higley bounced a comebacker back to Strain, who botched the play, being charged with an error as Higley reached. But, Strain bared down and got the next three on two pitches a piece, inducing a pop up, a fly out, and a line out. Strain would exit after his three-inning stint – matching his longest outing of the season with only 28 pitches thrown.
4th Inning – Round Rock, Texas
Jharel Cotton in just his second start for the Athletic’s organization – being one of three pitchers coming back to Oakland in the Rich Hill/Josh Reddick trade – had cruised through the first three innings. As he faced the top of the order again, Cotton notched his seventh strikeout as Drew Robinson struck out for a second time, this time on eight pitches. A pair of groundouts ended the frame with Cotton throwing only six more pitches. The fifth is more of the same. Gallo flies out on pitch number two, Hoying pops up on his sixth pitch, and Duffy adds himself to the strikeout victim list, going down on the fifth pitch.
In the top half of the sixth inning, the scoreless duel was finally ended. Andrew Faulkner came in for the dominant Mendez and, after a strikeout, walked Chad Pinder then served up a Renato Nunez roundtripper. The Sounds and Cotton now had a 2-0 lead. In the bottom of the inning, Cotton set down the bottom of the order on fourteen pitches, but for the first time on the night failed to strikeout a batter.
7th Inning – Clinton, Iowa
The third pitcher to enter the game for the Clinton squad was Lukas Schiraldi, son of former Major Leaguer Calvin Schiraldi. After starting the season as a member of the rotation, a rough five starts in High-A Bakersfield saw Lukas move to the pen, and move back down to the Midwest League. In his first inning of work on Tuesday, Lukas continued to mow down the Snappers. But, unlike Strain and Vasquez, there was an initial struggle. The first three pitches to his first batter, Jesus Lopez, were called balls… but he would come back to strike him out. Trent Gilbert saw only a pair of pitches from the tall righty, grounding out to shortstop. Chris Iriart would then whiff on the minimum three pitches.
Schiraldi would come back out in the eighth with the prospect of meta-perfection still on the docket – the LumberKings had allowed two batters to reach but had yet to yield either a hit or a walk. The first batter, Brett Siddall, kept the dream alive by striking out on the fourth pitch he saw from Lukas. But, with Skye Bolt up, Schiraldi lost the strike zone again as the batter bolted to first with a walk. Schiraldi beared down to strikeout Justin Higley and to induce pinch hitter Trace Loehr into a groundout to third. The LumberKings were three outs away from a no-hitter.
In the top of the ninth, the Clintonians made one more pitching change, bringing on their closer Matt Walker. He threw two pitches to Jordan Devencenzi who grounded out to first. He tossed four up to Luis Barrera who did the same. Walker then went to a full count on Jesus Lopez who swung at the sixth pitch for the game winning strikeout. Except, for the second time in the game, the pitch went sailing to the backstop and Lopez stood on first base.
8:54 PM – Clinton, Iowa
With Lopez on first, the first hit for Beloit could have tied the game. Alas, it was not to be, as on the second pitch of the at-bat, Trent Gilbert popped one into the Iowa night and when the ball landed in left fielder Ricky Eusebio’s glove, pandemonium ensued. The LumberKings had no-hit the Snappers. While they had allowed four baserunners, not a single one had advanced past the first stop on the way to home. It was a dominant performance by the four-headed hydra.
7th Inning – Round Rock, Texas
Meanwhile, back in Texas, the Sounds had plated another run in the top of the seventh to give Cotton a slightly more comfortable 3-0 advantage. Back at the top of the order, Robinson lined out on three pitches and then Hanser Alberto struck out on only three pitches. Jharel Cotton was tossing a gem. But, perfect games are hard to come by for a reason, Not only must a pitcher be spot on – avoiding a walk or a hit batter, let alone a squibber down the line that results in a cheap hit – the defense may need to pitch in with excellence as well. On the third pitch to Brett Nicholas, Nicholas dropped a proverbial Texas Leaguer into short right-center field. But, Nicholas would not be the first to reach this day as Jaycob Brugman raced in and made the diving grab.
If Cotton was flustered by the near-hit in the seventh, he showed no signs of it. He set down Joey Gallo on strikes to begin the eighth before getting Hoying and Duffy to pop out to second. 24 up, 24 down.
Cotton cruised out to the mound with the same 3-0 advantage to attempt to finish the perfecto in the ninth. Ronald Guzman went first pitch swinging, popping up to the first baseman. Kyle Kubitza took five consecutive pitches in his at-bat, with three of them being called strikes. Cotton was down to one man to complete the Perfecto.
But he would need to wait. Kubitza did not take kindly to the strike calls by home plate umpire Junior Valentine, and would spend several minutes on the field arguing with the arbiter. Even after he was given the heave-ho, it took more time for Valentine to leave the field as he crossed the field to enter the clubhouse.
It would be imprudent to say with conviction that the delay was an intentional tactic to shake up the right hander. But, no team wants to be the victim of a perfect game. And the Express were only three runs down. After the delay, Cotton fell behind 2-1 to the 27th batter, Doug Bernier. On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, Cotton’s 103rd pitch of the outing, Bernier scorched a liner into the right-centerfield gap that got by right fielder Colin Walsh and went to the wall, Bernier scurrying around to third.
The perfect game, gone. The no-hitter, gone. The shutout was only 90 feet away from being gone. The potential tying run was in the on-deck circle.
9:46 PM – Round Rock, Texas
None of that was of any concern to Jharel Cotton. Drew Robinson strode to the plate and five pitches later, he was walking back to the dugout after Cotton had hung a third K on him. And Cotton was embraced by his teammates after coming a whisper away from a perfect game.
Pitching a perfect game in the minors is difficult. The last nine-inning perfecto spun by a single pitcher in affiliated play happened over five years ago, as Justin Germano of the Columbus Clippers bested the Syracuse Chiefs on 7/26/11. Two years previous – 5/21/09 to be exact, current Phillies closer Jeanmar Gomez did the deed for the Akron Aeros. And in 2007, Manny Parra pitched perfectly for the Nashville Sounds against the Round Rock Express. Three perfect nine-inning games in a decade makes the feat exceedingly rare and quite an accomplishment.
While Cotton was unable to put his name in that pantheon, he has nothing to hang his head over. 108 pitches to get 27 outs. One hit. Twelve strikeouts. A brilliant game score of 104.
On one single night in two cities, two teams kept the opposition batters off the bases for nearly an entire game. For four Clinton hurlers, the only blemishes were a walk and two wild pitches. For Jharel Cotton, a lonely ninth-inning hit. No, minor league baseball did not have its second double no-no of the year. But, the dominance displayed will not be soon forgotten.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.