Admit it. You saw it happening. The runner on third, two outs. Jon Lester one strike away from a no-hitter, but also one poorly thrown strike away from losing that and the shutout, to boot.
Of course, that didn’t happen. But no-hitters always bring to mind the much longer lists of those who came so close and couldn’t quite finish the job. In fact, since 1956, 19 Red Sox pitchers have thrown complete game one-hitters. Just 10 have thrown no-hitters. Before Hideo Nomo began this incredible string of Boston no-hitters in 2001, it was even more lopsided: 17-5.
Now, there are one-hitters, and there are one-hitters — the ones lost in the ninth. Pedro Martinez’s 1999 decimation of the Yankees is remembered mostly for the 17 strikeouts and zero walks, not really the one hit he gave up in the second. Hideo Nomo’s one-hitter in 2001 was arguably better than his no-hitter (no walks, 14 strikeouts), but the betting here is it would be better remembered had the lone hit come in the ninth and not the fourth.
Here, then, is a tribute to those five Red Sox pitchers in the last 52 years who came as far as the ninth inning but couldn’t hold on to the glory within their grasp.
Billy Rohr, April 14, 1967
After the Red Sox go down in their half of the ninth inning all the people in the stadium stand and cheer as Rohr walks out to the mound, just three outs away from baseball fame. If ever there is someone who seems like an unlikely candidate for baseball immortality, it is Billy Rohr, this skinny stringbean of a left-hander.
As the crowd stands and cheers Rohr’s walk to the mound in the bottom of the ninth the young pitcher does not acknowledge the applause. He looks grim, determined. The suspense builds, the essence of baseball reduced to this one moment. This is baseball at its best, consequences riding on every pitch. He looks around at his teammates, and turns to pitch to Tom Tresh. The count runs to three and two.
"Billy Rohr on the threshold of fame, with a tremendous pitching performance today," Coleman says on the radio. "Rohr winds and here it is, a fly ball to deep left. Yastrzemski is going back … way back … way back."
Carl Yastrzemski, in his grey road uniform with "Boston" on the front in navy blue letters, and number eight on his back, starts running back as fast as he can. He can’t see the ball, but instinctively knows where it figures to land. Behind him is the scoreboard. Behind it is the left-hand grandstand, with only a smattering of people sitting in it. On a dead-run Yastrzemski dives, his body in full extension, left arm straining, his momentum carrying him away from home plate. He manages to catch the ball just before he hits the ground, landing on his left knee and doing a full somersault. His cap is off, lying near him on the grass. He quickly gets up, momentarily holding his glove with the ball safely tucked inside it over his head, as Coleman screams over the radio, "One of the greatest catches you’ll ever see by Yastrzemski in left field. Everyone in Yankee Stadium is on their feet roaring as Yastrzemski went back and made a tremendous catch."
There is one out.
Yaz has done it, I think. He has saved it.
Joe Pepitone is the next batter. He hits a routine fly ball that Tony Conigliaro handles easily in right filed.
One more, I tell myself. Just one more.
The batter is Elston Howard. Ironically, later in the season he will be with the Red Sox. But no one knows that on this afternoon. On this gray day he has become the one thing that stands between a rookie pitcher and a sliver of immortality. Before he steps into the batter’s box Williams comes out to visit Rohr. The manager doesn’t really have anything to say, just feels he should say something, anything, to calm his young pitcher. Howard digs in, a wide stance. He is a right-handed hitter and he rhythmically waves his bat toward Rohr. The count runs full. Billy Rohr is one strike away.
"Russ Gibson gives the sign," Coleman says dramatically, the tension in his voice. "The left-hander delivers … a line drive into right field for a base hit. Tony Conigliaro takes it on the first hop. He had no chance."
Of course, it was the third game of the 1967 season — a magical beginning to a magical season that saved baseball in Boston. Rohr would win two more games in his career.
Marty Pattin, July 11, 1972
Pattin was nothing more than league average throughout most of his career. He did win 17 games in 1972, despite a nearly exactly average ERA (ironically, he went 8-14 for the Royals when he posted a 142 ERA+ in 1976). But he was extraordinary on July 11, facing the A’s in Oakland.
Funny how baseball works. Less than a month before, Pattin was 2-8, his ERA nearing 6.00. He’d begun turning his season around, having won three straight, including a shutout in his previous start, and dropping his ERA to 4.57 entering the game. In his two years at Fenway, Pattin was better known for staring at the Green Monster and shaking off his catchers’ signs than for pitching, but — perhaps without the Wall over his right shoulder — he was having no trouble with his pitches come July.
Pattin allowed baserunners in each of the first three innings (walk-HBP-walk). He gave up a deep flyball out to center field in the fifth, walked Reggie Jackson for the second time in the sixth, but had retired nine straight entering the ninth, having allowed none of those runners to reach second. In the final frame, the Red Sox leading 4-0 thanks to a home run and 2 RBI from Carlton Fisk, Pattin struck out Joe Rudi, bringing Jackson to the plate.
Jackson scorched a line drive single, ending the no-hit bid, what Pattin afterward called only the second bad pitch he’d thrown all night. He finished with three walks and seven strikeouts, getting more than his share of fly balls that found the gloves of his outfielders.
Frank Viola, Sept. 30, 1992
Nearing the end of an abysmal 1992 season in which the Red Sox finished in last place, Frank Viola provided a boost when no one expected — against the first-place Blue Jays and their ace, David Cone.
Cone was dominant, striking out seven and giving up just four hits in eight innings, but he left behind, 1-0, as Viola was spinning his gem on the other side. It was something of a curtain call for the 32-year-old southpaw. Though he had a superb 1993 season, he was hampered by injuries, and he never pitched a full campaign again. In this, his last start of 1992, he showed the stuff that made him a two-time 20-game winner.
He began by striking out three of the first five batters he faced before running into trouble on a walk and hit batter in the second. Wriggling free, Viola was nothing if not efficient, inducing a total of 15 ground-ball outs. His only support came on a John Valentin home run with two outs in the fourth.
Armed with the one run, Viola poured it on. After walking Candy Maldonado with two outs, Viola needed just 43 pitches to retire the next 13 straight batters — seven of them going down on three pitches or fewer.
Until the ninth, when Devon White opened the inning with a weak line drive that died between shortstop and second base. The infield hit broke up the no-hitter and put the tying run on base with no outs, but five pitches later, Viola had preserved the 1-0 shutout.
Pedro Martinez, August 29, 2000
This is another legendary game that we’ve visited before — a madcap comedy of errors on the part of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays that managed to obscure the brilliance of what Martinez was doing when he was on the mound. Read all about it here.
Curt Schilling, June 7, 2007
We’re all pretty familiar with this one. Already robbed of a perfect game opportunity by a Julio Lugo error, Schilling becomes the first Red Sox pitcher since Rohr to take a no-hitter to the final out. As we all remember, he lost it on a clean base hit — and seemingly lost something else, as well, as Schilling has never been the same pitcher since.
Like Viola, Schilling rallied to preserve a 1-0 shutout, the lone run coming on David Ortiz’s home run.