May 28, 1988. Odell Jones is 35 years old. It's been eight years since he last started a major league game, but he's gotten the nod on this evening as his Brewers face the Indians in Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Since Odell made his major league debut as a 22-year-old for the 1975 Pirates, his career has been full of ups and downs. He's now on his fifth team, and he's been out of the major leagues almost as often as he's been in: he saw no MLB action in 1976, 1980, 1982, 1985, and 1987. Odell Jones is running out of chances, so he's got to make the most out of tonight's start. The 1988 season has had a good beginning for him: 2-0 with a 3.26 ERA in his first seven appearances for a Milwaukee team that should be a contender in the American League East. Can he keep it going?
Cleveland has stormed out to a 30-16 start, positioning them near the top of the division and blurring memories of their struggles in recent years. Their lineup is full of talented young hitters: Julio Franco, Joe Carter, Cory Snyder, Brook Jacoby. But Odell Jones comes out firing, retiring the side in order in the bottom of the first inning...and the second...and the third. In the top of the fourth, Dale Sveum drives a single up the middle to give his pitcher a 1-0 lead. He would make it hold up with three more spotless innings. In the top of the seventh, doubles by B. J. Surhoff and Greg Brock gave Odell another run to work with. He responded with yet another perfect inning. With the tension mounting, the journeyman pitcher got Cory Snyder on a fly ball to right field for the first out in the eighth before walking Mel Hall to give the Indians their first baserunner. In all, Jones had shut down the first 22 Tribe batters. He would escape the inning unscathed, taking a no-hitter and a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth.
Now Cleveland was pulling out all the stops. Outfielder Dave Clark pinch hit for catcher Andy Allanson and struck out swinging; it was Odell's seventh punchout of the night. Two outs to go. Young shortstop Jay Bell was called back to the dugout, with veteran utility player Ron Washington taking his place at bat. Washington made contact, dropping a line drive in shallow right field, out of the reach of Glenn Braggs. Just like that, Odell Jones' unlikely run at baseball history had come to an end. Having thrown 101 pitches, he was pulled from the game, as reliever Dan Plesac was brought in to face the tying run and close out the victory. Plesac made things interesting by giving up another single, but retired the next two hitters to deliver a win for Odell Jones and the Brewers.
After the game, Jones said the following of his amazing performance:
"I kind of looked up at the board tonight and thought, `What am I doing? What in the world am I doing?' This is by far my best game ever. After about the fifth or sixth inning, I was really bearing down, trying to get it. After the hit, it really hit me hard, I was totally exhausted. I was overextending myself, using everything I had to get the ball up there. I was too tired to get nervous."
I've never seen an Orioles pitcher throw a no-hitter; the last in team history was a combined effort by Bob Milacki (6 IP), Mark Williamson (1 IP), Mike Flanagan (1 IP), and Gregg Olson (1 IP) against Oakland in 1990. The last time I remember anyone coming close was Daniel Cabrera against the Yankees in September 2006, when Robinson Cano ultimately spoiled things with a line-drive single to left field with one out in the ninth. Daniel settled for a complete game one-hitter, a 7-1 victory in the most hostile of environments - Yankee Stadium. From what I remember of that game, I was most certainly not too tired to get nervous. I lived and died with every pitch, especially when the Orioles started giving the Yanks extra outs by committing three errors in the late innings. But that's the ultimate reward for being a fan. Eventually, one of your guys will make it through the ninth without that line drive sinking into the expanse of the outfield, and you'll exhale.
I hope it happens some time this year. I could use a brief sensation of joy and otherworldly heroism in what promises to be a long and probably painful growing experience.