25 years ago today was a disappointing day for Blue Jays ace Dave Stieb. Well, there were plenty of good things about it. He got the win, and a starting pitcher always likes that. He got a complete game; pitchers take pride in that. He even got a shutout, and that’s a feather in anyone’s cap.
But if you’re going to pick up a win by throwing a complete game shutout, it’s hard to have it end in a more deflating way than the way it ended for Dave Stieb a quarter-century ago today. You see, he came one out from a no-hitter, and would’ve had it, had it not been for a fluky bad hop.
On Sept. 24, 1988, Stieb led the Toronto Blue Jays against the not-so-mighty Cleveland Indians. Early on, it was clear that Stieb had brought his A game. He set down the side in order in the first and second innings. Though he allowed a one-out walk in the third, that batter was gunned down in a failed steal attempts, and Stieb retired the next batter to end the inning.
In his second time through the order, it was more of the same. In innings four through six, the only batter to reach base came on a walk, and he was rubbed out on the base paths (this time as part of a double play).
People were starting to wonder: Could Stieb do it? Could he throw a no-hitter? Then again, maybe they were wondering if anyone would score, for Indians pitcher Rod Nichols was twirling a gem of his own. It wasn’t a no-hitter, but it was a shutout.
Stieb retired the side in order again in the seventh. He was just six outs away. In the eighth, he hit a batter with two outs, but then retired Terry Francona via fly out. Stieb wouldn’t be able to face the bare minimum 27 batters on the day, but the no-hitter was intact. And Stieb had just one more inning to go.
Even better, in the top of the ninth the Jays finally broke through, turning a pair of singles, a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly into a run, for a 1-0 advantage. Now it was all up to Stieb.
First up in the ninth was catcher Andy Allanson. He’s the guy who walked and tried to steal back in the third. This time, Stieb fanned him for his eighth K of the day. Next up came veteran first baseman—and former Jays teammate of Stieb—Willie Upshaw. Pinch-hitting for the shortstop, Upshaw tapped out a routine grounder to second.
Stieb had never thrown a no-hitter. The closest he’d come was earlier this year when he had a complete game one-hitter, but the hit there came in the fourth inning, so there wasn’t much drama to it. Now he was just one out away.
To get that out, he’d need to retire leadoff hitter Julio Franco. Franco took the first pitch for a ball, and then took the next two for called strikes. Apparently, the umpire was calling a wider strike zone than Franco expected, so he began to protect the plate. Franco would play until he was nearly 50 because he was such a good professional hitter, and it showed here. He fouled one off. Then he fouled another off. And a third. Franco was battling. He was going to make Stieb throw him a good pitch. On the seventh pitch, Franco took one that was outside and this time the umpire gave it to him—ball two.
Stieb threw another one—pitch No. 123 of the game—and Franco made contact. This time the ball landed in fair territory—an easy hopper to the second baseman. This was it! All second baseman Manuel Lee had to do was follow the bouncing ball into his glove and Stieb would have it.
The ball bounced on the turf to Lee and then… took an utterly insane hop wildly over Lee’s head. No jump in the world would be high enough to catch it. It was like the ball was suddenly possessed by an evil spirit that hated Stieb. The ball went into the outfield for a single. You couldn’t call it an error—Lee had no play. Apparently, the ball bounced on the seam where the turf meets the dirt at second base and went goofy as a result.
Stieb retired the next batter to preserve the win, but lost the no-hitter. This would become in some ways the signature game for Stieb. He was the guy who kept just missing the no-hitter.
In fact, in his very next start, on Sept. 30, 1988, Stieb took a no-hitter into the ninth, only to allow a single with two outs. At least that time it was a routine single. Incredibly, in his second start in 1989, Stieb had another one-hitter. This time the single came early—in the fifth inning—but Stieb had three one-hitters in four starts.
In August 1989, Stieb was one out from a perfect game, only to allow a double, then a single, losing his perfect game, no-hitter and shutout. (He did get a complete game win, though). Three weeks later Stieb took a no-hitter into the sixth only to have a Robin Yount single ruin it for him. In 15 months, Stieb had five one-hitters, and a two-hitter, with three of those games seeing him come within one out of a no-hitter.
Hellish, isn’t it? The story has a happy ending. The next year, on Sept. 2, 1990, Stieb finally did it: He threw a no-hitter. If anyone ever earned it, it was Dave Stieb. He had plenty of hard luck close calls, but none were harder luck than the one-hitter he threw 25 years ago today.