Ever a season away from his potential, or a game away, even a pitch away, Homer Bailey on Friday night in Pittsburgh became something like the pitcher the Cincinnati Reds always believed would come with that talented right arm.
On a cool night at PNC Park, near the end of a season in which he became a consistent contributor to – and 13-game winner for – the NL Central-leading Reds, Bailey threw the modern day record-tying seventh no-hitter of 2012.
After the Pirates' Alex Presley popped out on Bailey's 115th pitch, securing a 1-0 win and the Reds' first no-hitter since Tom Browning's in 1988, Bailey thrust his arms straight over his head and welcomed his onrushing teammates.
"It's really surreal," Bailey told reporters afterward. "I can't believe it's happening."
In spite of a generation of futility, the Pirates had not been no-hit since 1971 against Bob Gibson. The last Reds right-hander to throw a no-hitter was Tom Seaver, 34 years ago.
Bailey rode his fastball, particularly in Friday night's late innings. His strikeout of pinch-hitter Brock Holt to open the ninth (on a 93-mph fastball) was his 10th, tying his career best. Bailey walked one batter – Andrew McCutchen in the seventh inning – and had another batter reach on Scott Rolen's fielding error in the third inning. The rest saw Bailey hammer the strike zone with fastballs and bury his slider.
Noting the cooler temperatures and the guidance of catcher Ryan Hanigan, Bailey said, "We didn't have our best stuff, but somehow we were able to go out and make some good pitches."
The seventh overall pick in the 2004 draft, Bailey reached the major leagues three years later, as a 21-year-old. He did not pitch a full season, however, until this one. His career ERA was nearly five when, in April, he began to approach the promise of his early years. Friday's was his 32nd start, during which he surpassed 200 innings for the first time.
As a result, pitching behind Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo, Bailey is among the reasons the Reds – for all intents and purposes – finished the NL Central race weeks ago and remain in a fight with the Washington Nationals for the league's best record.
Presumably, the Reds are fully recovered from their last postseason experience, in which the Philadelphia Phillies swept them in the division series two falls ago. They were no-hit by Roy Halladay in Game 1 of that series, and in 2011 finished 17 games behind the division-winning Milwaukee Brewers, primarily because of the pitching staff. They will be among the favorites this October, because they sheared about three-quarters of a run off both their overall ERA and starters' ERA.
Rarely has that been more evident than Friday night in Pittsburgh, site of a second-half collapse by the Pirates and Bailey's nine-inning excellence.
Bailey said he kept the later innings as simple as he could. By the ninth inning, he inhaled deeply between pitches and exhaled sharply. He shrugged his shoulders to stay loose. And then he went after the Pirates with his fastball, many of them up in the zone. A.J. Burnett, who started for the Pirates, allowed a run in the first inning. Bailey protected that run for more than two hours.
"You know what?" he said. "I just kept trying to put up zeroes. We're trying to get the best record in the National League. That was my focus."
[Related: Rays unveil plans for proposed new stadium]Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips smiled broadly when the final out of the game settled into his glove. Bailey celebrated with Hanigan and the rest of the Reds, during which he was doused with water. He smiled almost sheepishly on his way off the field. When Bailey disappeared into the dugout he passed acting manager Chris Speier, who was carefully removing the lineup card from the dugout wall. Presumably, the card soon would belong to Bailey.
Only hours before, Speier, who is covering for the ailing Dusty Baker, had marveled at Bailey's growth as a player.
"It's just been a real pleasure to watch the maturation of Homer Bailey becoming a pitcher," Speier had told reporters before the game. "He's always been a good thrower. Now he's got the whole package. It's been really good."
The no-hitter joined a cluster of them over the past five months. Philip Humber of the Chicago White Sox, Jered Weaver of the Los Angeles Angels, Johan Santana of the New York Mets, Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants, Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners and six Mariners pitchers combined threw no-hitters since late April. Three – Humber's, Cain's and Hernandez's – were perfect. Sixteen no-hitters have come since the start of 2010.
And how would Bailey finish his evening? By calling his parents in Texas.
"I guess," he said, "I've got some good news for 'em."
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