No-hit Joe from El Cajon

Joe Musgrove

Joe Musgrove, about to end the Padres’ 8,205-game no-hitter drought.

Right off, what does Joe Musgrove have in common with Cy Young? You can look it up: they both threw their first no-hitters for their hometown teams. More or less.

Musgrove grew up in El Cajon, California, a twenty-minute drive to San Diego if traffic behaves, rooting for the Padres. As a Padre he wears the uniform number of his favourite Padre growing up, Jake Peavy. Young’s first of three no-hitters was for the Cleveland Spiders; he’d grown up in Canton, Ohio, about an hour’s drive from Cleveland.

Breaking out to start 2021 with a distinct resemblance to a Cy Young Award winner in his first Padres start is nothing compared to what Musgrove did Friday night in Arlington.

He not only broke the Padres’ record-setting stretch of 8,205 regular season games without a single no-hitter on the ledger, but if he hadn’t plunked Joey Gallo in the fourth inning he’d have had a perfect game. If Musgrove has any regret from a night allowing none, he might be thinking he’d like to have that one pitch back.

Because, otherwise, he didn’t walk a batter and nobody reached on an error. He threw 112 pitches (average 12 pitches per inning), he’d retired the first eleven Rangers in order before catching Gallo with his first pitch and two outs, then retired the next sixteen he faced in order.

He struck out ten and benefited from ten ground outs and seven outs in the air including three line outs. Making him responsible directly for 59 percent of the game’s outs and thus more responsible for the outcome than his teammates. This no-no was more the real deal than many prove to be.

It also means that the end of the Padres’ no-hit drought means every Show franchise has had at least one no-hitter on its resume. Who better to nail it than the kid from Grossmont High in El Cajon?

Musgrove had only four full counts all night, each the only such heavy count of its inning, and only the third inning was truly work for him, going 2-2 on each batter before getting them out with a called strikeout (Jose Trevino), a fly out to the back of right center field (Eli White), and a ground out (Leody Taveras) to shortstop playing in short right in a shift.

I’ll resist the temptation to ask why Rangers manager Chris Woodward didn’t entertain a thought about ordering Taveras to think about bunting into that delicious open real estate left prone by the defensive shift. Uh, no, I won’t.

It’s not as though the third inning is a definite sign of something like a no-hitter brewing. And if it was, so what? They give you a gift like that, you say thank you, accept it, and unwrap it. If it was the later innings, so what again? Unwritten rules be damned, you need baserunners, you get them by hook, crook, and anything else you can think of. Especially if the other guys are foolish enough to lead you into overwhelming temptation.

As it happens, the Padres were already the proud possessors of a 3-0 lead in the third inning. They hung two up in the second, courtesy of Wil Myers’s RBI double and Tommy Pham’s sacrifice fly; they posted the third in the third when Manny Machado sent an RBI double to the rear of left center field.

That proved all Musgrove needed to work with. And when the ninth inning came around, Musgrove would have had an immaculate inning if he’d struck out all three Rangers he faced. Sort of. He had to settle for getting pinch-hitter David Dahl to line out to second on 1-1, for getting Taveras to ground out right back to the box on 0-2 with a foul off before the grounder, and for getting Isiah Kiner-Falefa to ground out to shortstop on 0-1.

The Globe Life Hangar audience roared approval. And Chris Young, the former pitcher turned commissioner’s office executive turned Rangers general manager, and coincidentally the last Padre to take a no-no as far as the ninth (in 2006, when Joe Randa hit a one-out bomb over the center field fence), couldn’t help himself, either.

“It was obviously a special night for Padres baseball and San Diego fans . . . just unfortunately at the expense of the Texas Rangers,” said Young answering a telephoned question. “But that’s OK.”

If there’s one thing which remains universally true in baseball, it’s that the home crowd and sometimes even the home brass finds itself appreciative when the other guys’ pitcher threatens to finish a no-hitter, never mind up and doing it.

I’m old enough to remember the Shea Stadium crowd suddenly shifting their loyalty when Hall of Famer Jim Bunning took his perfect game into the seventh on Father’s Day 1964. The Mets suddenly became the enemy in their own brand-new playpen and Bunning became the hero they wanted to see finish what he started. To the point where he got a standing ovation from a packed park when he batted late in the game.

Bunning’s fellow Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax had that experience only once: he pitched his 4 June 1964 no-no against the Phillies in Connie Mack Stadium. He pitched his three other no-nos—against the Original Mets (1962, which some wags said was doing it the too-easy way), the Giants (1963), and the Cubs (practise makes perfect, 1965)—in front of the home audience.

So did Hall of Famer Bob Feller. His first two no-nos: on the road in Chicago and New York. The third: At home. Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan was also a no-hit road rat: of his seven, he pitched four on the road: two as an Angel (against the Royals and the Tigers), and two as a Ranger. (Against the A’s and the Blue Jays.) Cue up the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic “Travelin’ Band.”

Musgrove would have to pitch a second no-hitter against the Rangers on the road to equal one unusual feat: Justin Verlander’s three no-hitters include two against the Jays, both of which were pitched in Toronto. Verlander isn’t the only pitcher to no-hit the same team twice (hello, Addie Joss and Tim Lincecum), but he’s the only one to do it in their sandbox.

“For him to do it growing up in San Diego and this being his team,” said Padres manager Jayce Tingler after Musgrove’s jewel, “it’s about the perfect story written.” Well, it might have been even more so if it happened in the home yard, but the Padres will take what they can get.

They had an inkling Musgrove would prove just the number three man they’d need while they spent much of the off-season overhauling their starting rotation. They dealt for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish so swiftly you almost missed the Darvish deal. A few weeks later, they had Musgrove coming aboard. He rewarded their faith by throwing six shutout innings at the Diamondbacks en route a 7-1 Padres win.

Who knew it was just a warmup for the Big One so far? Musgrove, too, will take it where he can get it. Especially since he’s gone from a World Series champion (with the 2017 Astros, a Series now considered tainted, though the pitchers aren’t exactly to blame for the Astro Intelligence Agency sign-stealing shenanigans) to a Pirate (the Astros traded him in the January 2018 deal that brought them Gerrit Cole) and, now, back home to San Diego.

“I think a no-hitter, regardless of where you’re playing, is really special,” he said after the game. “But it almost seems like this was meant to be . . . The city of San Diego has shown me so much love, even before I came to the Padres, just a San Diego kid who made it to the big leagues. So it feels even better to be able to do it in a Padres uniform and selfishly be able to do it for my city and have everyone know that the kid from Grossmont High threw the first no-hitter.”

The Padres won’t be home again until 16 April, when they host the Dodgers and the Pirates in succession. Bet on it. When Musgrove takes the mound during that homestand, the racket of love will be one of the noisiest rackets in San Diego baseball history. The man from nearby El Cajon will drink every drop appreciatively.

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