You thought there’d be no excitement possibility on this year’s regular season-closing weekend? Think again.
The National League Central turned out to have a surprise in store for you this weekend: the Cardinals and the Brewers entered Sunday with a chance at facing an NL Central title tiebreaker game.
A couple of less wealthy teams in the American League East and West put wild cards in the bank and got to say, Look, ma—no tanking!
And a nice guy who pitches for the Astros while standing to win this year’s American League Cy Young Award hit two milestones Saturday night—with one rude interruption to his achievements.
A nice guy who became the only member of the 3,000 strikeout club to surrender a home run to the first man up after he bagged the milestone punchout. And on the first pitch, yet. Who says Andujar’s Law (In baseball, there’s just one word: you never know—Joaquin Andujar, once an Astro himself) is ripe for repeal?
Justin Verlander, as smart on the mound as he is nice otherwise, started against the Angels Saturday night needing six strikeouts to reach 3,000. The game meant little enough by itself, other than the long-lost Angels celebrating their fan appreciation night; the Astros owned the AL West all year long and had home-field postseason advantage in the bank while they were at it.
There’d be plenty of time to get back to the business of serious competition, especially with these Astros not only winning a third straight American League West but inspiring some oddsmakers to put them at +200 for going all the way to win a second World Series in three seasons. Saturday night was a night for one man’s milestones.
With the Angels—whose season ended well out of the contention they were never really in, was punctured by unexpected tragedy, and once again proved them a team unworthy of its and baseball’s best all-around player—leading 1-0, Verlander hit his first one in the bottom of the fourth.
He got 3,000 when he threw Kole Calhoun a nasty, down-and-in slider on 2-2, Calhoun swinging and missing rather emphatically. The Angel Stadium crowd wasn’t sure for a moment what to cheer louder, Verlander nailing the milestone punchout or Calhoun reaching first when the ball went past catcher Robinson Chirinos enabling Calhoun’s reach in the first place.
The official scorer ruled a wild pitch. It could have been ruled a passed ball; Chirinos was moving to the inside as Verlander delivered and looked in solid position, mitt down, to stop the ball.
Thus only the third time in his major league life had Verlander struck a batter out to see him reach base on it. Making him the second member of the 3,000K club whose milestone punchout resulted in the batter reaching base. Hall of Famer Phil Niekro brought that one off on the Fourth of July in 1984, as a Yankee, when he led off the top of the fourth by striking out the Rangers’ Larry Parrish—only to see Parrish reach first when Knucksie’s famous knuckleball knuckled past catcher Butch Wynegar.
Verlander didn’t hold it against Chirinos. “He was like ‘Don’t worry about it’,” Chirinos said to reporters after the game. “I lost that pitch because Calhoun is so on top of the plate, so the ball was coming into him and it hit my foot and went the other way. I was laughing that it happened in the worst moment. Something to remember. Good thing he got to 3,000.”
No worries. The Angel Stadium crowd handed Verlander a loud ovation—their own team has its problems but Angel fans appreciate achievement, just as a Hall of Famer appreciates it when his own achievement is respected and appreciated on the road. He tipped his hat to the crowd and went right back to work.
“I honestly haven’t had a moment to really have it set in,” Verlander said after the game. “My teammates gave me a good speech after and everybody gave me a great hug. Hopefully this is one of those moments that we look at and it’s just one of the special moments of the season that was extremely special.”
But I’d bet only the Angel Stadium audience thought what happened next was special. Angel shortstop Andrelton Simmons checked in at the plate and hit one over the center field fence. How rude of him. It made Verlander the only member of the 3,000K club to surrender a home run to the next man up after the milestone punchout. And on the first pitch to the guy.
Verlander and the Astros had the last laugh, however. They went on to overthrow the 3-0 deficit into which Simmons’s launch put them and win, 6-3, after Jose Altuve (a two-run shot) and Josh Reddick (a three-run shot) cleared the fences in the sixth, and Altuve added an RBI double in the seventh.
And Verlander exacted a little milestone revenge against Calhoun in the bottom of the sixth. When he struck Calhoun out then, it made him plus Gerrit Cole only the second pair of teammates (Curt Schilling and Hall of Famer Randy Johnson were the other pair, for the 2001 Diamondbacks) to strike out 300+ in the same season.
Sweetening that particular pot: neither Verlander nor Cole had ever struck out 300+ batters in their careers until now. And Verlander is the second pitcher to nail his 3,000th strikeout in an Astros uniform, behind Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, who flattened Cincinnati’s Cesar Geronimo for that milestone on the Fourth of July in 1980.
I couldn’t resist. I looked up all eighteen games that included a 3,000th strikeout and what happened with the next man up in those innings after those pitchers bagged their milestones:
Walter Johnson (Senators)—The milestone: Stan Coveleski (Indians), bottom of the sixth, 22 July 1923. The next batter: Charlie Jamieson—fly out to left.
Bob Gibson (Cardinals)—The milestone: Cesar Geronimo (Reds), top of the second, 17 July 1974. The next batter—None; Gibson retired the side with that strikeout.
Gaylord Perry (Padres)—The milestone: Joe Simpson (Dodgers), top of the eighth, 1 October 1978. The next batter: Pedro Guerrero—reached on an infield hit and took second on the throwing error.
Nolan Ryan (Astros)—The milestone: Cesar Geronimo (Reds), bottom of the second, 4 July 1980. The next batter: Junior Kennedy—walk. (Dubious co-milestone: It made Geronimo the only man to be the 3,000th strikeout victim of two pitchers.)
Tom Seaver (Reds)—The milestone: Keith Hernandez (Cardinals), top of the fourth, 18 April 1981. The next batter: None; side retired.
Steve Carlton (Phillies)—The milestone: Tim Wallach (Expos), top of the first, 29 April 1981. The next batter: None; Wallach was the third victim as Carlton opened the game striking out the side.
Ferguson Jenkins (Cubs)—The milestone: Garry Templeton (Padres), bottom of the third, 25 May 1982. The next batter: Ruppert Jones—fly out to left.
Don Sutton (Brewers)—The milestone: Alan Bannister (Indians), top of the eighth, 24 June 1983. The next batter: None; side retired.
Phil Niekro (Yankees)—The milestone: Larry Parrish (Rangers), bottom of the fourth, 4 July 1984. The next batter: Pete O’Brien—fly out to center.
Bert Blyleven (Twins)—The milestone: Mike Davis (Athletics), top of the fifth, 1 August 1986. The next batter: Mickey Tettleton—walk to load the bases.
Roger Clemens (Blue Jays)—The milestone: Randy Winn (Devil Rays), top of the third, 5 July 1998. The next batter: None; side retired.
Randy Johnson (Diamondbacks)—The milestone: Mike Lowell (Marlins), bottom of the fourth, 10 September 2000. The next batter: None; side retired.
Greg Maddux (Cubs)—The milestone: Omar Vizquel (Giants), top of the third, 26 July 2005. The next batter: None; side retired.
Curt Schilling (Red Sox)—The milestone: Nick Swisher (Athletics), bottom of the first, 30 August 2006. The next batter: Mark Kotsay—grounded out to second base. (Note: Swisher hit an RBI double off Schilling in the bottom of the fourth.)
Pedro Martinez (Mets)—The milestone: Aaron Harang (Reds), bottom of the second, 3 September 2007. The next batter: None; side retired.
John Smoltz (Braves)—The milestone: Felipe Lopez (Nationals), top of the third, 22 April 2008. The next batter: Cristian Guzman—grounded out to first unassisted for the side.
CC Sabathia (Yankees)—The milestone: John Ryan Murphy (Diamondbacks), 30 April 2019. The next batter: None; struck out the side. (Without a little trouble, though, since former Met Wilmer Flores hit one out against Sabathia with two out in the inning and Nick Ahmed singled right after, before Murphy came up.)
Thus we have eight pitchers whose 3,000th strikeouts retired the side and three whose 3000th strikeouts struck out the side. Two walked the next man up and one of the two loaded the bases with that walk. (Blyleven escaped that inning unscathed for runs.) Two got ground outs from the next batters; three got fly outs next. And two (Walter Johnson, Pedro Martinez) struck out fellow pitchers for their milestone punchouts.
Justin Verlander would probably have loved nothing better than to get rid of Andrelton Simmons immediately after he dispatched Kole Calhoun for number 3,000. I’m sure he’ll settle for being the only man to get the same guy for two milestones on one night.
The flip side, of course, is that Calhoun—a solid if not so spectacular Angel outfielder with 34 home runs on his 2019 ledger—would have loved nothing better than not being Verlander’s 300th strikeout of 2019 and 3,000th strikeout lifetime on the same night.
Joaquin Andujar, wherever you are in the Elysian Fields, call your office.