This was pitching purity, a performance so dominating that Red Sox manager Jimy Williams uttered what might seem baseball heresy: Hideo Nomo’s one-hitter last night might have risen to a level beyond Nomo’s no-hitter last month.
Toronto hitters flailed at Nomo’s split-finger fastball and wailed as one after another was called out on strikes or swung and missed as Nomo piled up 14 strikeouts. And the glittering icing on this sweet performance was that Nomo did not walk a batter.
“I felt very comfortable throwing and I just had to look at [Jason] Varitek’s glove,” said Nomo, as levelheaded after this gem as always. “He put up a target and I was very comfortable just throwing to it.”
The Red Sox won, 4-0, yes, and the win was needed after strong pitching was wasted by flabby hitting in New York. But so much more than the win will be remembered: only the one hit (a Shannon Stewart double on a curveball on the first pitch of the fourth), only one other ball to the outfield off a usual fly-ball pitcher, the total befuddlement of the Blue Jays batters (”Remember,” said Williams, “they’re a strong-hitting ball team”), and the pinpoint control of Nomo.
It also may be baseball heresy to suggest that Nomo walking no batters - he was tied for the league lead in walks going into the game with 31 - was as astonishing as his giving up only one hit.
“I was just lucky,” Nomo said of walking no one, downplaying again this aspect of his strong pitching.
But “lucky” was the last word Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan considered when discussing Nomo’s sudden improvement in control (he walked only one batter in his last outing).
“Hard work,” said Kerrigan. “He works as hard as anybody.”
So much so, said Kerrigan with a chuckle, that in between innings last night Nomo headed up the tunnel behind the dugout “and worked on his delivery in the tunnel. I’m looking around and saying, `Where the hell is he?’ and there he is in the tunnel, working on his delivery and working on his balance.”
All this was in tune with the vow that Nomo made to Kerrigan when the Red Sox were in Minnesota nine days ago.
“He was throwing on the side that Thursday in Minnesota and he just said to us, `I’m not going to walk any more people,’ “ said Kerrigan.
“No, he said it in English,” said Kerrigan. “He said he wanted to pitch more innings, he asked us how he could do it, and we said, `Well, if you walk less people, you’re going to pitch more innings.’ And he said, `OK. I’m not going to walk anybody.’ He’s great. He’s a man of his word.”
“I remember the conversation,” Nomo said through an interpreter. “They have to change pitchers when I give up a lot of walks, so I do not want to walk anybody so I can stay in the game.”
The final score does not do justice to the tension of the game or Nomo’s increasing strength as the game wore on. The Red Sox scored a run before even one batter was retired, but then - continuing a disturbing pattern this season - they squandered scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity. It was not until Mike Lansing doubled with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth that Nomo had breathing room.
But Nomo was devastating from the fifth inning onward. At one point, he struck out seven Blue Jays in a row, just one shy of the American League record shared by Roger Clemens (in his 20-strikeout game for Boston against Seattle in 1986), Nolan Ryan (twice), and Ron Davis.
From the fifth through the eighth, Nomo struck out eight of nine batters and nine of 11. After a 1-2-3 ninth gave Nomo 19 straight outs, he had pitched the first one-hitter by a Red Sox pitcher in Fenway Park since Danny Darwin on Aug. 18, 1993.
No Red Sox pitcher in the last 50 years has had a no-hitter and a one-hitter in the same year (whether Cy Young or another early Boston pitcher has accomplished the feat is being researched by the Red Sox), but Nomo did not seem giddy with joy. He was matter-of-fact. As always.
He praised Varitek’s ability to block the split-finger pitches that bounced in the dirt, especially when Stewart had reached third with one out in the fourth and the Blue Jays’ main threats - Carlos Delgado and Raul Mondesi - came up. Nomo retired both, even though he bounced four pitches to the two sluggers (Varitek blocked all four).
“The most important thing was my fastball,” said Nomo. “That’s because if I don’t have my fastball, they won’t swing at my forkball. It’s important for me to establish my fastball.”
But a no-hitter and a one-hitter in the same spring?
“It’s hard to comment,” said Nomo. “The season still has a long way to go. I just want to concentrate and stay healthy and get ready for each game.”
The joy can be supplied by Red Sox fans. They have certainly learned, as early as the season is, that Nomo is capable of greatness. Each and every start.