Heartbreak Hill

Rich Hill, pitching what proves the hardest-luck loss of his major league life.Pour up a couple of ice cold Cokes, Jim Maloney and Pedro Martinez, and lift a toast to the memory of Harvey Haddix and Hippo Vaughn. Because nothing in Rich Hill’s roller-coaster pitching career prepared him to join that group of pitchers who took no-hitters or better into extra innings and lost them.

For 98 pitches Wednesday night in Pittsburgh Hill was almost perfect. Heeven shook it off when third baseman Logan Forsythe stumbled on Jordy Mercer’s leadoff grounder in the ninth and erased the next three in order, prompting Dodger manager Dave Roberts—trying to make up to his man for pulling him after 89 perfect pitches last September—to send him out for the tenth.

Then, in a perverse reverse of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison turned on the 99th pitch and sent it just into the left field seats. Leading off the bottom of the tenth. Eluding the upstretched glove of Curtis Granderson—newly acquired from the long-disappeared Mess (er, Mets)—by inches. Destroying a performance in which Hill got eighteen of his 27 outs on three pitches or less.

Ushering him into that band of brothers who were perfect or almost so into extra innings and went down the hard way. As ESPN observed, Hill went from Maddux to Haddix—a sub-100 pitch performance, a perfect game lost in or on the threshold of extra innings—with one fateful sub-90 fastball that worked wonders for him otherwise before Harrison set to swing on 2-1.

Roberts kindly blamed everyone but Hill for his stranding on Heartbreak Hill. “He competed,” the manager said after the game. “Every pitch was with a purpose. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t get that one hit. We’ve done it all year long.”

For Hill—having a hard luck season as it was in the middle of the Dodgers’ version of the Third Army’s plunge through central Europe, with seventeen quality starts in nineteen assignments yielding a 3.32 ERA with a not-terrible 3.90 fielding-independent pitching rate—Wednesday night in Pittsburgh might just as well have been just another skirmish in the Battle of the Bulge.

“It falls on me,” he said after the game, “this one — one bad pitch.”

History books be damned, Hill isn’t going to let one setback spoil the (everyone by now just about believes it) inevitable ultimate Dodger victory. “Right now, I’m just looking forward to tomorrow,” he told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick. “I know it sounds a little boring, but that’s it. I’m looking forward to tomorrow, getting in the gym and getting ready for the next outing. We have a lot of great things going on here. Tomorrow is a big game. We have to take the series and get back home.”

Haddix, before the heartbreak inning.

Haddix, before the heartbreak inning.

At least Hill could say the agony was spread over two innings. Haddix didn’t have that luxury on 26 May 1959.

The Pirates lefthander faced the Milwaukee Braves, who were defending back-to-back pennants. He entered with a pre-game clubhouse prediction: after he ran down how he’d pitch to individual Braves hitters rather than a general game plan, Pirates third baseman Don Hoak chirped, “Harv, if you pitch those hitter like that, you’ll throw a no-hitter.”

Be careful what you wish for. It might almost come true.

Haddix rid himself of 36 straight batters over twelve innings, while the Pirates couldn’t pry a run out of Lew Burdette despite twelve hits. Then Hoak himself spoiled the perfecto when his error on Braves counterpart Felix Mantilla—he rushed the throw on Mantilla’s high bouncer, pulling first baseman Rocky Nelson off the pad—let Mantilla reach to open the thirteenth.

After Eddie Mathews sacrificed Mantilla, Haddix walked Hank Aaron to set up a double play and maybe save the no-no while he was at it. And Joe Adcock said, “No, no!” when hitting a three-run homer. Except that Aaron running from first thought the ball hit the wall instead of sailing over it and slowed down, enabling Adcock to pass him on the bases and nullify the bomb—Mantilla’s run was the only one to count.

Unfortunately, it was the one that counted for the 1-0 heartbreak. Haddix was so dazed that when Burdette called him to congratulate him, Haddix hung up on him—moments after he interrupted a reporter to ask the inning the game ended.

Maloney, ruined like Hill by a lone homer.

Maloney, ruined like Hill by a lone homer.

Maloney squared off against the measly Mets 14 June 1965—almost a year to the day after Philadelphia’s Jim Bunning pinned them back with a perfect game—and took a no-hitter to the top of the tenth in tiny Crosley Field, matching shutouts with veteran Mets righthander Frank Lary (the one-time Yankee killer of the Tigers) through eight while he was at it and striking out eighteen in the bargain.

The only Met baserunner before the tenth was first baseman Ed Kranepool on a second-inning walk, but the Reds couldn’t get any runner past second off Lary or his relief Larry Bernearth. But Mets outfielder Johnny Lewis hit one over the fence to open the top of the tenth, the Reds couldn’t score anything despite a Frank Robinson single in the bottom, and Maloney stood on the wrong end of his own 1-0 heartbreak.

He made up for it later that season, throwing a 1-0 no-hitter at the Cubs—also in ten innings, and despite nine walks. (His walk to Kranepool was the only free pass he surrendered in the heartbreaker against the Mets.) The bad news: Dogged by chronic shoulder and arm issues, Maloney’s career would end as less than it should have been (though he’d throw another no-hitter, at the Astros, in 1969) considering his howitzer fastball and his tenacity on the mound.

Martinez---young, an Expo, and foiled.

Martinez—young, an Expo, and foiled.

Martinez was still a young sprout when he faced the Padres in Montreal silks on 3 June 1995. What made this one different from Haddix is that he not only took a perfect game into the bottom of the tenth but—thanks to Jeff Treadway’s RBI single in the top—he had a shot at finishing the perfecto with a win.

Bip Roberts put a stop to those ideas when he banged a double to right to open. Manager Felipe Alou lifted Martinez promptly in thanks for the grand effort, and reliever Mel Rojas made sure the Padres couldn’t cash Roberts in, saving the 1-0 win. Martinez’s years of Hall of Fame greatness were yet to come, of course, but he never again got anywhere near pitching a no-hitter.

Except for Haddix, perhaps those gentlemen pondered the cruel fate of Vaughn (Cubs) and Toney (Reds). A century plus ago—2 May 2017, to be precise—those two behemoths (both over six feet tall, and packing 410 pounds between them) squared off in Wrigley Field when it was still known as Weeghman Park. And both got through nine full innings without surrendering a single hit.

Vaughn, bespoiled, while his opponent Toney consummated his no-no.

Vaughn, bespoiled, while his opponent Toney consummated his no-no.

The irrevocable law of sports is that somebody has to lose. No more cruel application could have come than in that game. And with one out in the top of the tenth, Vaughn surrendered a single to Larry Kopf. Three batters later, Olympics decathlon legend Jim Thorpe nubbed one toward first that was just enough to let Kopf score. Then Toney finished what he started and locked his no-hitter down.

Vaughn would win a career-high 23 games that season, and finish a decent career in 1921, but he never got near a no-hitter again.

Haddix—who eventually became a well-traveled pitching coach (he retired as a player in 1965)—spurned numerous endorsement and appearance offers for big money at that time in the wake of his fractured perfecto. The Ed Sullivan Show, What’s My Line, and To Tell the Truth, the last two popular panel-quiz shows of the time, wanted him aboard.

“It didn’t make sense for him to leave the team to do all that,” his wife, Marcia, eventually told Sports Illustrated. “He was overwhelmed by the attention. At heart he was just a farm boy who loved picking corn more than anything else”

His opponent, Burdette, ever the man to see the humour in just about anything, turned his part in it to profit when it came time to talk contract for 1960: That guy pitched the greatest game in baseball history and he still couldn’t beat me—so I must be the greatest pitcher who ever lived!

Burdette got his laugh. And, his raise.

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