The indomitable Red Sox ace, Pedro Martinez, said a little prayer. The manager, Grady Little, stood statuesque, fearful the slightest flinch would defy fate. And the principal owner, John Henry, sat frozen to his seat, too nervous to join the 32,837 at Fenway Park yesterday who stood in wild anticipation of one of the greatest wonders in the history of Boston baseball.
Together, they witnessed Derek Lowe, once among the most reviled figures in the sports-crazy metropolis, recapture the region’s adoration by unfurling the final act of a virtuoso pitching performance.
At 3:33 p.m., Lowe induced Jason Tyner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to ground out to second base for the last out of the first no-hitter at the historic ballpark in 37 years. Not since Boston’s Dave Morehead no-hit Cleveland Sept. 16, 1965, had any pitcher achieved such brilliance.
Yet even after Lowe’s teammate, Jose Offerman, presented him the ball on a silver platter in the clubhouse afterward, the pitcher struggled to absorb the magnitude of his feat. Lowe’s outing in a 10-0 victory over Tampa Bay marked only the 10th no-hitter by a Red Sox pitcher in Fenway’s 90-year history.
“It’s surreal,” Lowe said. “I still don’t think I did what I did, as crazy as that sounds. I still think it happened to somebody else because you don’t ever think something like this can happen to you.”
Especially if you’re Lowe, the 28-year-old Michigan native who pitched so poorly as a reliever last year that he was flooded with hate mail, derided at every turn, and feared being seen by irate fans, even in the security of the bullpen. When he needed to use the restroom, he said, “I kind of slithered along the wall so they wouldn’t see me.’’
But there he was in the glorious afterglow, the newest symbol of a baseball team that has reconquered the hearts of its fandom and kindled all-too-familiar - but suddenly more palpable - hopes that this will be the year the Red Sox end their unrequited quest for a world championship. By the time Lowe unleashed the 98th and final pitch of his masterpiece, a city overrun with Bruins fever had regained its balance.
“This just adds to everything else we’ve been building here, along with what the Patriots started,” said designated hitter Brian Daubach. “It’s a very exciting time right now.”
Lowe allowed only one base runner, when he walked Brent Abernathy leading off the third inning. And the Devil Rays, who knew they were in trouble as early as the fourth, immediately began talking about the prospective no-hitter - a breach of baseball etiquette - in a desperate effort to jinx Lowe.
“We were trying to get the baseball gods working for us,” said Tampa Bay catcher Toby Hall, “but they weren’t listening today.”
So dominant was Lowe that the Devil Rays never came seriously close to mustering a hit. If the wind had been blowing out in the first, Lowe suggested, Randy Winn’s fly ball that center fielder Rickey Henderson chased down on the warning track might have cleared the Green Monster for a home run, or caromed off it.
Otherwise, Tampa Bay had only two solid chances. With one out in the fourth, right fielder Trot Nixon gave chase when Steve Cox ripped a line drive toward the corner.
“I had a good jump on it,” Nixon said. “I knew I was going to catch it. I just had to motor down and catch up to it before I got too close to the wall.”
Lowe was perfect afterward. His control of his signature pitch, a sinking fastball, was so sharp, in fact, that he threw as many as three balls to only four Devil Rays as they flailed in vain. But the closer he approached the no-hitter, the more perilous the outing became. In the second game of the season, Lowe took a no-hitter into the eighth against the Orioles in Baltimore before Tony Batista’s infield single ruined it.
By the eighth yesterday, Lowe said, “It was nerve-wracking.”
But he had catcher Jason Varitek at his side. The two have played together since their unpolished minor league days in the Seattle organization in 1995.
“I couldn’t hit, catch, or throw, and he couldn’t throw except for one pitch over one side of the plate,” Varitek said, “so we’ve come a long way.”
With Varitek calling the pitches, Lowe shook him off just once. Together, they stymied the Devil Rays into the ninth, when Lowe started the inning by getting Russ Johnson to hit a soft line drive to second baseman Rey Sanchez.
Then Felix Escalona drilled a line drive to the gap in left-center field. “That one scared me,” Varitek said.
But Henderson raced toward the ball. “I would have dived for it if I had to,” Henderson said, “but I got a good jump on the ball, so I just ran under it.”
That brought up Tyner, who grounded a 2-and-2 pitch to Sanchez, who fired the ball to Offerman at first to cap the masterwork and ignite a jubilant celebration from the mound to the most distant corner of the creaky park.
In a rare moment in Fenway lore, Lowe surprised the thousands who lingered after his gem by grabbing a microphone and addressing the crowd. He said he understood why the fans lost confidence in him last year, then thanked them for their support.
“I think the crowd carried him the last two innings,” Varitek said. “He wasn’t out of juice, but if anything, the crowd really helped that adrenaline kick in.”
Lowe is the first Sox pitcher to throw a no-hitter since Hideo Nomo last April. And it hardly seemed to matter that he knew nothing about Morehead, whose no-hitter before a tiny crowd late in a dreary season in ‘65 had gone unmatched at Fenway for nearly two generations.
Even the great Martinez has not pitched a no-hitter in the 234 games he has started. And Lowe pitched his in only his 27th big league start.
“It felt like it was me,” Martinez said. “I’m really proud of Derek. I think he’s got a chance to pitch many more.”
No sooner did Lowe complete his masterpiece than Sox officials were advising him he needed to set aside a memento to commemorate the feat in the Hall of Fame. Lowe seemed somewhat astonished - and moved.
“Now, I can go there and see a grubby old hat and a pair of shoes and say, `Yeah, I pitched a game to get in there,’ “ he said. “That gets you a little bit because whoever thought that would happen to anybody.”