Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Morrow's Sorrow Recalls Stieb's Near No-Nos

Good morning Fackers. Despite merely splitting this weekend's four game wrap around series against the Red Sox, things couldn't have gone much better for the Yankees over the past four days. The split against Boston leaves the Yankees six games up on their archrivals with more than two thirds of the season completed. It's far, far too early to start counting magic numbers, but as the wounded Red Sox continue to limp along, this weekend's series pushed them four games closer to elimination.

Of greater importance to the Yankees right now is the favor that the Blue Jays performed for them over the weekend, sweeping the Rays in a three game series, allowing the Yanks to extend their lead over Tampa Bay by a game and a half. Toronto snuck by with a narrow 2-1 victory on Friday; dropped a 17-11 beatdown on Saturday, featuring eight home runs by the offense and a four for five, eleven total base debut by J.P. Arencibia; then took another pitcher's duel with 1-0 victory on Sunday.

It's of course Sunday's game that is most memorable, as Toronto starter Brendan Morrow came within one out of being the third pitcher to no hit Tampa Bay this season, and the fourth in the last thirteen months. Morrow was masterful, striking out a 2010 MLB high 17 batters, walking just two, allowing just six balls out of the infield, and losing his no-no on an infield single by Evan Longoria with two outs in the top of the night.

The instant Longoria reached first base safely, my thoughts immediately turned to former Toronto ace Dave Stieb, something that wasn't lost on the good folks at Big League Stew as they recapped the game yesterday. The heartbreak suffered by Morrow yesterday and Armando Galarraga earlier this year is something the Jays' mustachioed and criminally underrated 80's ace could relate to all too well. And the Yankees played a role in two of Stieb's near misses.

In 1988, Stieb carried no hitters into the ninth inning in both of his final two starts. In Cleveland on September 24th, Stieb struck out Andy Allanson leading off the ninth, then got Willie Upshaw to ground out. With just one out separating him from a no hitter, Stieb faced Indian's leadoff hitter and future batting champ Julio Franco. Already thirty years old at the time and with nearly twenty years left on his Major League career, the jheri curled second baseman took a ball, then two strikes, then fouled off three straight pitches before working the count even at 2-2. On the eighth pitch of the at bat, Stieb's 123rd on the night, Franco bounced a base hit through the middle. Stieb then retired Dave Clark to the end game, settling on a one hit, two walk, 1-0 victory nearly identical to Morrow's outing Sunday.

Six days later, in the opening game of Toronto's final series on the season, Stieb took the mound at Exhibition Stadium as the Jays hosted Baltimore. Once again, Stieb was outstanding. He was perfect through six and a third, with his lone walk of the day being erased on a subsequent double play. Facing the bottom of the order of a feeble Baltimore team that would finish a Major League worst 54-107, Stieb once again came within one out of a no-no. Both Brady Anderson and Jeff Stone tapped back to Stieb. With just one out to go, O's skipper Frank Robinson sent Jim Traber to pinch hit for rookie third baseman Craig Worthington. To that point, Traber was just one for eight against Stieb in his career. But Traber lined a 2-2 pitch to right field for Baltimore's first hit, and for the second time in as many starts, Stieb had his heart broken just one strike away from finishing a no hitter.

His luck didn't get any better in 1989. He started in Kansas City in the second game of the season, and held the Royals to four hits, two walks, and a lone run over eight frames, but his offense could only manage one run of their own, courtesy of a solo homer by Jesse Barfield, who was just 25 days away from being traded to the Yankees. For the ninth inning, Stieb gave way to Todd Stottlemyre, son of former Yankee ace and future Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. After getting two outs, Stottlemyre surrendered a double to future Yankee Danny Tartabull and a single to former Yankee first round pick Pat Tabler, allowing KC to walk off with a 2-1 win. But compared to his two previous starts and his next start, Stieb's hard luck no-decision in Kansas City was nothing.

Five days later, Stieb took to the hill at Yankee Stadium in the opening game of a three game series. Again, Stieb would allow just one hit. This time at least, he got it out of the way early, yielding a fifth inning single to Jamie Quirk.

Stieb wouldn't have any more near misses until four months later, when he faced the Yankees at Skydome on August 4th. This was perhaps Stieb's best start of all. He needed just 82 pitches to retire the first twenty six batters he faced, eleven by strikeout. For the third time in eleven months, Stieb stood a lone out away from a no hitter. If he could retire the young Yankee center fielder Roberto Kelly, he would complete just the eleventh perfect game in baseball's modern era.

Kelly was in the midst of his first full season as the Yankee center fielder. He made a brief cameo in 1987 and entered 1988 as the starting center fielder. But after a slow start, he lost his job to Claudell Washington, and by July he was back in Columbus. 1989 was a different story. With Washington having signed with the Angels in the off-season, center field was Kelly's to lose. This time, he got off to a strong start, and with Dave Winfield out for the year following back surgery and Rickey Henderson's contract demands resulting in a June trade back to Oakland, Kelly was the Yankees best outfielder on that woeful '89 team and the best player outside of Don Mattingly. As he stepped in against Stieb with two outs in the ninth, he was batting .328/.389/.448.

Not quite nine years old at the time, I can recall watching the game with my father. At some point in the ninth inning, referencing Stieb's tough luck over the previous year, Dad predicted the Yanks would find a way to spoil Stieb's night. Kelly got ahead 2-0, then lined a double down the left field line. Steve Sax followed with a single to spoil Stieb's shutout. A groundout from Luis Polonia put an end to the game, but once again Stieb had come so close without sealing the deal.

In a span of 25 starts, Stieb had pitched three one hitters and a two hitter. Three times he had lost a no hitter with just one out to go, one of them a would-be perfect game. In the history of baseball, just four men (Johnny Vander Meer, Allie Reynolds, Virgil Trucks, and Nolan Ryan) have pitched two no hitters in one season. Stieb was four batters away from recording four within eleven months. Over the four starts, Stieb tossed 36 innings, allowed five hits, one run, seven walks, and recorded twenty eight strike outs, four complete games, and three shutouts. Still he failed to get his name into the record books.

Just over a year later, Stieb would finally break through. The 1990 season, much like this year, was marked by an unusually high number of no-nos. As Stieb made his start on September 2nd, there had been six already on the season, not including the Yankees' Andy Hawkins' lost no-hitter against Chicago on July 1st nor future Yankee Melido Perez' rain shortened no-no against the Yankees on July 12th.

Facing the Indians at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the site of his first heartbreaker nearly two years earlier, Stieb recorded the seventh and final no hitter of 1990, and the first in Blue Jay history. He walked four, but struck out nine, getting Jerry Browne to line out to right for that elusive twenty seventh out.

Stieb pitched two more injury plagued seasons for the Jays before signing a free agent deal with the White Sox. He made just four appearances in a Chicago uniform before being released less than two months into the season. He spent four full years out of baseball before resurfacing with Toronto as a 40 year old swingman in 1998. His second to last Major League appearance came on September 20th, against Tampa Bay, the team Morrow nearly no hit Sunday. Stieb came on in relief of a Blue Jay making his Big League debut: Roy Halladay, who of course tossed a perfect game of his own earlier this season.


  1. I'm glad I still check out this site from time to time. This piece is a gem! I never realized how tragic a figure Stieb was - although I do remember the Roberto Kelly broken perfect game bid.

    I was doing play-by-play for small crowd on the beach where I listened to Morrow's ninth-inning on my phone. It was one of the few times that a Sox fan (cousin) and I were both rooting together for the same outcome.

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  4. As the annual Jack Morris for Hall of Fame chatter increases, I find myself reading about Stieb. I grew up with the Jays and you always had the feeling that things weren't going to go well for Stieb. But looking back at the stats and also his disgraceful 7 vote HOF ballot I have to wonder how different it all would look if luck had just gone his way a bit more. His overall record suffers from a lack of luck (subpar runs scored, etc.). But what if that was all the same but he got a couple breaks with those 1-hitters and had back-back no-hitters along with a perfect game? What would his legacy look like now?