About two minutes after Mark Buehrle closed out the first no-hitter of his career Wednesday, he looked into a Comcast SportsNet camera and asked "What just happened?" as if he couldn't believe he had so thoroughly shut down the Texas Rangers.
A beer shower from his Chicago White Sox teammates let Buehrle know: This was real, and it was real good, too.
At 9:14 p.m., in the 42-degree chill at U.S. Cellular Field, Buehrle capped the young season's most brilliant performance by inducing Gerald Laird's weak ground out to third base. As Joe Crede released the throw, Buehrle jogged backward, a smile spreading across his face, and punctuated it with a fist pump and enough hugs to last a year.
"To go through a big league lineup three times and get everyone out," Buehrle said to Comcast, "it's pretty impossible to do. I can't believe I did it."
Actually, it was rather easy to believe, the way Buehrle pitched. The 28-year-old left-hander allowed only a fifth-inning walk to Sammy Sosa, then promptly picked him off first base. Around that hiccup, Buehrle fired his fastballs on the corners, kept changeups toward the bottom end of the strike zone and made everyone forget about the second half of last season.
Remember, Buehrle was an All-Star last year after winning nine games in the first half. In his last 14 starts, however, Buehrle floundered, his 3-7 record and 6.44 earned-run average ugly, his diminishing velocity and eminent hittability (113 in 81 innings) even uglier.
In the ninth inning, Buehrle pumped a 90-mph fastball on the outside corner to catch Matt Kata looking for the first out. The next batter, Nelson Cruz, swung through a breaking ball for the second out, Buehrle's seventh punch out of the night. And Laird's tapper ended an evening in which Buehrle exploited the ability to spot his fastball, which has been his hallmark since he debuted as a 21-year-old in 2000.
Over the six seasons since Buehrle has been a paragon of consistency, starting at least 32 games and averaging 230 innings per year and a 3.83 ERA. Amid the White Sox's signing Jon Garland, Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras to lengthy and expensive deals, they have not locked up Buehrle. During the All-Star break last season, he reportedly turned down a three-year, $34 million extension, and that was before the market exploded as it did this offseason.
Surely this won't hurt his impending free agency.
If the Chicago Cubs do sign Carlos Zambrano as expected, Buehrle could top plenty of teams' pitching wish lists this offseason. His numbers stack up favorably with those of Barry Zito, in fact, and while Buerhle won't command a $126 million deal, one for five years at $75 million certainly isn't out of the question so long as he continues to acquit himself as he did Wednesday.
Safe money has Buehrle ending up with the St. Louis Cardinals. He grew up in suburban St. Louis and attended Game 3 of the World Series there last season wearing a Cardinals cap (which didn't exactly rest well with White Sox brass).
Buehrle shook that off like he does most everything. He carries himself with a cool demeanor, even toward the end of last season when he so struggled. Early in spring training this year, Buehrle said he felt like he had "no-hit stuff."
Sounded silly at the time. Sounds prescient now.
By the time the eighth inning rolled around, the knuckles on Buehrle's hands were purpled from the cold and he couldn't help but blow on them between pitches. He knew he had been lucky. A great catch by Jermaine Dye. A very close call at first base, one that led to the ejection of Texas' Jerry Hairston Jr. Even though Hawk Harrelson wouldn't dare using the words "no-hitter," Buehrle refused to isolate himself in a corner.
"I've got a no-hitter going," Buehrle said. "Who cares? Don't run from me. Come over and talk to me."
What could anyone say? They knew they were watching something special. As Buehrle descended the dugout steps following the on-field mob, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen handed him the lineup card. It would be a wonderful memento for the night that no one could touch Buehrle.
Except teammates armed with beer cans.
"Perfect game would've been nice, too," Buehrle said. "But no-hitter? Can't argue with that."