By Jon Weisman
There’s always a thrill whenever any pitcher is working on a no-hitter, that clickety-clack as he takes you up the rise of the roller coaster, each moment of anticipation adding to the whooshing reward.
When it’s your guy, it’s even more of a wild ride. And when your guy is a guy who is now verging on his own kind of Fernando-Hideo frenzy, well, lock down your valuables and keep your hands inside the car.
In his fourth Major League game tonight in Colorado, Kenta Maeda went 5 1/3 innings without allowing a hit, setting the stage for him to duplicate the no-hit effort achieved two decades ago by his countryman Nomo, before finishing with eight strikeouts in 6 1/3 shutout innings.
Maeda, as Cary Osborne presaged in his pregame writeup, is the first starting pitcher in MLB history to allow fewer than two runs across his first four starts. His ERA, with a trip to the Mile High City under his belt, is now an unreal 0.36, with 23 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings against 23 baserunners.
Despite pitching for the first time in his life at the big leagues’ toughest ballpark, Maeda could hardly have been more sharp. In the first four innings, he faced 13 batters and threw first-pitch strikes to all of them, walking one and retiring the other 12, with six strikeouts and only one ball even leaving the infield.
The 28-year-old pitched a perfect fifth inning, but this came with the kind of hold-your-breath moment that at once shows a pitcher’s vulnerability and makes him seem invincible. Troy Walters blistered a ball to the gap in left field, but Kiké Hernandez made a leaping, over-the-shoulder catch, sprawling onto the warning track to preserve the no-no.
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Working with a 4-0 lead (the key hit being A.J. Ellis’ two-run homer in the second inning), Maeda’s no-hit magic disappeared two batters into the bottom of the sixth, when D.J. LeMahieu hit a 1-2 curveball for a clean single to center. Trevor Story followed with a single to right to put two on.
The next batter, Carlos Gonzalez, hit a ball up the middle that shortstop Corey Seager smothered. It was the first hit of the season off Maeda with runners in scoring position, but by keeping it on the infield, the shutout was preserved.
That was the good news. The bad news was that All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado was coming up as the tying run.
Pitching with the bases loaded for the first time in his MLB career, Maeda induced two harmless outs — a pop-up by Arenado, followed by a soft comebacker from Gerardo Parra. It was, even with the three hits that preceded, another wow inning.
Maeda was at 89 pitches at this point. After Ryan Raburn whiffed on five pitches to start the eighth, the Dodgers decided Maeda’s night was done.
@truebluela Maeda Gras
— Eric (@udonbeatsramen) April 24, 2016