By Jon Weisman
There are moments, moments that take you by surprise in their purity and beauty, moments where you’re trudging uphill with your head down and then, reaching the crest, you find the most beautiful valley unveiled before you.
On a damp, sometimes rainy night in San Francisco, in his Major League debut, with the Dodgers and their fans on his shoulders, Ross Stripling reached that wondrous, unexpected summit.
In his first Major League start — his first game above Double-A — and two years after Tommy John Surgery, the 26-year-old Stripling threw 7 1/3 no-hit innings, the most that any pitcher in his debut has taken to the clubhouse in more than 100 years.
Cruelly, the first batter after Stripling exited the game, Giants backup catcher Trevor Brown, hit a game-tying home run off Chris Hatcher, and amid a furious debate over his removal, Stripling would take a no-decision as San Francisco and Los Angeles took each other into extra innings. At the same time, it took nothing away from the rookie right-hander.
Not that he didn’t have defensive help. Not that he didn’t have bouts of wildness. But this, this was his moment.
Stripling retired the first 10 batters he faced in the big leagues. Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson helped out with diving catches — Puig’s was particularly spectacular, going horizontal in mid-air to snag Matt Duffy’s second-inning drive. Adrian Gonzalez dug out a throw by Stripling for another key play.
But also, Stripling held it together after his fourth-inning walks to Joe Panik and Hunter Pence, drawing nondescript outs from Brandon Belt and Duffy.
The Dodgers gave Stripling his first lead in the top of the fifth. One out after a leadoff double by Joc Pederson (capping another great at-bat), A.J. Ellis singled home Pederson for the first run off Giants starter Matt Cain. Another out later, singles by Chase Utley and Corey Seager brought home a second score.
Stripling didn’t waste the advantage, pitching perfect fifth and sixth innings. Then, beginning the bottom of the seventh at 77 pitches, seven of his first eight pitches were balls, meaning that the tying run (Belt) was at the plate with a 3-0 count, and Pedro Baez was warming in the bullpen.
Three pitches later, there were two out and the bases empty, thanks to two called strikes and a 4-6-3 double play. Duffy grounded to second, and just like that, Stripling was through seven, on 91 pitches.
To start the eighth, Crawford hit a routine fly to Puig, but when Pagan walked on Stripling’s 100th pitch of the evening, Stripling’s personal journey on the mound was done. Dave Roberts came to the mound, knowing that it was April, knowing that it was cold, knowing that it was rainy, knowing that Stripling hadn’t thrown that many pitches since before he went under the knife.
Dave Roberts said 100 pitches was a hard limit based on Ross Stripling's spring workload, TJ history. "A no-brainer"
— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) April 9, 2016
Yes, my heart is completely sympathetic to the argument — you don’t even know how much — for leaving Stripling in. History! Reasonable minds can disagree (without cursing at each other, even), but that doesn’t make the argument for leaving Stripling in the right one. In addition to health concerns that shouldn’t be ignored, there was the plain fact that Stripling’s pitch count was entering triple digits, and 13 of his last 22 pitches had missed the strike zone. It’s no leap of faith to believe that Hatcher on his first pitch would be more effective than Stripling on his 101st.
Even if Stripling had somehow made it through the eighth, there was no way on earth he’d have come out for the ninth, nullifying the history argument. If you’re suggesting Stripling should have been allowed to throw 125 or 135 pitches in this game, I’m not sure what to say.
In 1892, Bumpus Jones threw a no-no for Cincinnati, in his first big-league game (and only game that year). No one since repeated the feat. And no one since has. Bill Dillman, of the 1967 Orioles, was the last pitcher to leave with five no-hit innings intact. In the modern era, despite what happened next, Stripling’s debut was nearly as magical as you could imagine.
What happened next … well, it was painful, and the debate it fueled online furious and one that won’t abate overnight. Hatcher entered and, on a 3-1 pitch, gave up the homer that ended the no-hitter and tied the game. In the same inning, Hatcher’s frustration with the ball-strike calls by home-plate umpire Jeff Kellogg grew, and Roberts had to race out of the dugout to protect him, costing the manager his first ejection in the process.
This game was yet another one for Dodger-Giant lore, and all that remained as it marched into the 10th inning was to see who would cherish it and who would sooner incinerate it.
The answer came in the bottom of the 10th, when Crawford hit an opposite-field home run off Joe Blanton. Stripling had the memory, but the Giants had the game.