Thursday, June 26, 2014

In Pursuit of Johnny: Clayton Edward Kershaw and Baseball's Unbreakable Record

Since 1875, there have been nearly three hundred no-hitters in Major League Baseball. Only once has a man followed up a no-hit performance by achieving the feat again. In mid-June 1938, Johnny Vander Meer held the Boston Bees and Brooklyn Dodgers hitless within a five day span. No-hitters are common, especially in recent years, which is why I love the next start so much. Vander Meer's name gets dropped before every broadcast, and once the opposition hits safely, the record is confirmed. Last year, I wrote a dual-story on Tim Lincecum's no-hitter and the game that followed. On June 18, 2014, Clayton Kershaw pitched a no-hitter for the ages. The first such feat to include fifteen strikeouts and no walks. The debate will rage on as to whether that or Kerry Wood's 1998 legendary twenty-strikeout game was better, but I'll leave that for another day. The real story, for me at least, is the game that took place on Tuesday night in Kansas City, when Kershaw became the most recent man to challenge Vander Meer's immortal record.

The best part about Johnny Vander Meer's career was that he was not elected to the hall of fame. He didn't deserve to be enshrined. Sure he was a four-time all-star with nearly thirteen hundred strikeouts over thirteen seasons, but was never considered an elite talent worthy of Cooperstown. Baseball is funny that way. Masterful pitchers have come and gone without coming close to a perfect game, but then guys like Philip Humber and Dallas Braden accomplish it before fading back into obscurity. Yet those names are memorable simply for that fact. Clayton Kershaw is surely bound for the hall of fame someday. Already to this point in his young career, he has a no-hitter, two Cy Young Awards, and has led all of Baseball in earned run average the last three seasons. He is quite the opposite of Humber, Braden, and Vander Meer. So naturally, the hype before Tuesday's start was looming large across the baseball world. Could the Los Angeles prodigy achieve one of baseball's toughest tasks? We would learn quite quickly the answer would be no.

In the bottom of the first inning, with one out, Eric Hosmer returned a 93 miles per hour fastball for a base hit, ending Kershaw's historic try almost as soon as it began. Hosmer would be retired on a double play soon thereafter, but the back-to-back chance was quenched before it had a chance to burn. I suppose there is probably a sense of relief when something like that ends so soon. Whether or not Kershaw felt that way, there was still a game to be played, and a competitor like him would not stay down long.

Over the next seven innings, Clayton gave up five more hits and surrendered a walk. Rather pedestrian when juxtaposed to his last outing, but there is not a pitcher alive who would turn down a night like that. At the hand of the Dodger ace, a Kansas City baserunner would only see third base once, but never score. It was an eight inning, eight strikeout performance that left stellar closer Kenley Jansen to finish off the Royals. Perhaps Los Angeles was onto something when they extended Kershaw's contract to essentially pay him one million dollars per start. The most dominant pitcher on the planet what he was supposed to do and what he always does- deliver.

Hundreds of times, a pitcher has taken the hill after throwing a no-hitter. Seldom does that outing come anywhere near a repeat performance. In 1973, the eternal Nolan Ryan pitched a no-no for the California Angels against the Detroit Tigers. It was his second hitless outing of the season. In his next start, Ryan took yet another no-hitter into the eighth inning before giving up a hit without recording an out. Nine years after Vander Meer's feat, another Cincinnati Reds pitcher nearly matched him. Ewell Blackwell, a six-time all-star for the Reds, took his second effort into the ninth inning. Blackwell would give up the first hit of the game soon enough, a mere two outs from immortality, the closest anyone has come to matching Johnny.

No-hitters are special. Surely there are more engaging feats in baseball, but the tension that fills a stadium in the later innings is one of the greatest parts of the game. Still, perfect games are much rarer than ordinary no-hitters, given that not one player from the opposition can reach base under any circumstance. A naturally brilliant talent like Clayton Kershaw will have many more opportunities to accomplish both of those. He will have a plaque hanging in Cooperstown. Still, through all his accolades and mountainous stats, unless his planets align twice in a row, he'll always sit behind Johnny Vander Meer... just like everyone else.

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