On May 17, 1963 Don Nottebart threw the first no-hitter in the history of the Houston franchise. The final score, however, reflected not only Nottebart’s pitching abilities, but also the defense he had playing behind him, and prompted memories of other “flawed” no-hitters.
A couple of weeks ago we had a mailbag question about “cheap” no-hitters, specifically whether or not it was possible to throw a no-no despite only facing 24 batters. As it happens, it used to be possible, but no longer is. Major League Baseball ruled that any no-hitter must record 27 outs. Therefore, any official no-hitters now see the pitcher retiring (at least) 27 batters without allowing a hit.
Due to the vagaries of fate and defense, pitchers can sometimes face 27 batters, surrender not a hit and yet still find themselves giving up a run, or sometimes considerably more than a run.
Don Nottebart was a fairly unremarkable pitcher, finishing with a career record well under .500 and a career ERA north of 3.50. May 17, 1963 was his day of glory; he pitched a no-hitter for the Houston Colt .45s (we’d call them the Astros) against the Phillies. Nottebart put on a good show, striking out eight in the course of not allowing a hit. The final score, however, saw the .45s secure a 4-1 victory.
And how did Philadelphia get its run? Good timing on the Phils’ part and bad luck for Houston. After a two-base error by shortstop J.C. Hartman allowed Don Demeter to reach second, he was bunted to third and then driven in by a sacrifice fly. That actually tied the score at one, and improbably as late as their half of the sixth, the .45s were tied in a game in which their pitcher had not allowed a hit.
Houston would score three runs that inning, giving Nottebart a lead and the victory he deserved. Some pitchers are not so lucky. Pitching for the Yankees during their dire early ’90s period Andy Hawkins took the mound in Chicago for a game against the White Sox on July 1.
Through eight innings Hawkins had yet to allow a hit, but his hapless teammates had failed to muster any offense of their own. After getting Ron Karkovice and Scott Fletcher on pop-ups to second baseman Steve Sax, Hawkins had to face a young Sammy Sosa. Sosa reached based after an error by third baseman Mike Blowers. Perhaps rattled by this, Hawkins issued back-to-back walks to Ozzie Guillen and Lance “One Dog” Johnson.
With the bases now loaded, but two outs, Hawkins bore down and got a fly ball to left field out of Robin Ventura. The best laid plans were awry, as Jim Leyritz—inexplicably stationed in left field by Yankees skipper Stump Merrill—committed an error of his own, clearing the bases and leaving Ventura standing on second.
Despite this, Hawkins managed to settle down and Ivan Calderonhit a flyball in the direction of right fielder Jesse Barfield. Hawkins must have been feeling better, as Barfield was a real, actual outfielder. In fact, he wasn’t just any real, actual outfielder; he was a two-time Gold Glove winning outfielder. Those Gold Gloves didn’t do him, or Hawkins, any good. Barfield also made an error, allowing the inning’s fourth run to score.
After Hawkins finally recorded the last out, the Yankees couldn’t manage any runs in the ninth, so Hawkins had pitched a no-hitter, allowed four unearned runs and had only a loss to show for his troubles.
Sometimes a pitcher can throw a no-hitter, manage to avoid giving up any unearned runs and still not impress anyone with his performance. Such was the case of A.J. Burnett’s 2001 no-hitter. Burnett, now in the midst of an expensive and possibly ill-conceived contract for the Blue Jays, was handed a start against the Padres. He proceeded to throw what is probably the worst pitched no-hitter of all-time and might also be the worst pitched shutout in baseball history.
In the first, Burnett retired the first two hitters before walking Ryan Klesko. He got out of the inning unscathed and immediately got himself back into trouble in the second walking the first two men. He got a flyball but still faced runners on the corners with just one out. Luckily for Burnett, Donaldo Mendez hit into a double play and the scoreboard remained untouched.
Improbably, the scoreboard stayed untouched by the Padres through the third—the Marlins put up a pair of runs in the top of the inning—despite Burnett again walking two men and throwing a wild pitch, putting runners on second and third with one out. He wiggled out of his own mess once more, striking out Klesko and getting a fly out from Dave Magadan.
In the fourth Burnett walked the second batter of the inning and then hit the next guy, leaving the Padres (again!) with two runners on base. Facing the end of the lineup, Burnett once more escaped. He had yet to allow a hit, but the Padres had batted around twice in four innings. In four innings Burnett allowed seven base runners, and the first was the Padres’ only inning without a man reaching second base.
Burnett appeared to settle down in the fifth and sixth, retiring six Padres in order. He ran that streak to seven, retiring the leadoff hitter in the seventh, but then walked Mendez (a lifetime .183 hitter). Mendez would steal second before Burnett could once more extract himself from trouble, giving the Padres another inning with a base runner in scoring position.
It was probably around this point that people began to notice that, although Burnett was pitching lousy, he was also pitching a no-hitter. That would continue in the eighth inning as Burnett allowed two walks and a stolen base but still no hits. Perhaps seeking to maintain some dignity, Burnett did his job in the ninth, retiring the Friars in order. In nine innings Burnett had allowed no hits but 10 base runners (nine walks, one HBP) and thrown a wild pitch. Ultimately it is the no hits part that matters.
I’m sure there are other flawed no-hitters, to say nothing of many near no-hitters and perfect games (I once saw the Orioles’ Daniel Cabrera one-hit the Yankees but give up a run on an error, two passed balls and another error), but Nottebart, Hawkins and Burnett all deserve special note for their own, unique take on one of a pitcher’s greatest accomplishments.