The Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox have been, by any measure, among the biggest disappointments in the major leagues this year.
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Entering their series opener in Chicago, they owned the two worst records in the American League — the White Sox at 11-19, the Twins at 9-18. And Tuesday’s first-pitch temperature was 42 degrees.
So there you had it — two lousy teams, playing in stocking-hat weather, on an ordinary weeknight in May, in a town where Derrick Rose’s ankle was a much greater concern than anything at U.S. Cellular Field.
It proved to be the perfect cocktail for baseball’s finest moment of the young season.
Francisco Liriano threw a no-hitter for the Twins, and it was the most dramatic, October-like sort. The score wasn’t 7-0 or anything like that. The outcome of this game was in doubt until the very last pitch.
Liriano entered the bottom of the ninth with a 1-0 lead. Brent Morel led off the inning with a ground ball to the left side that demanded fine plays by shortstop Matt Tolbert (backhanded pickup) and first baseman Justin Morneau (scoop). But then Liriano walked Juan Pierre, which wasn’t a huge surprise. Pierre had walked twice before on the night, half of the six free passes Liriano issued.
And think about what that meant: The 27-year-old was two outs away from joining baseball’s immortals, yet one pitch away from a soul-crushing, walk-off loss. But on the mound, in the cold, that probably didn’t occur to Liriano. At least, he didn’t pitch like it.
The lefty retired Alexei Ramirez on a flare to shortstop. Then came a seven-pitch test of wills with slugger Adam Dunn.
Dunn, batting .157, is off to a slow start with his new team. But that didn’t seem relevant with two out in the ninth. Dunn, of all the Chicago hitters, might have been the biggest threat to swat a lazy breaking ball over the right-field wall. But Liriano refused to make a mistake. His last pitch was a slider, and Dunn served it in the air toward shortstop. Tolbert was positioned perfectly. He squeezed it. Game over.
“I can’t believe myself right now,” Liriano told FOX Sports North.
Who could? Consider the history:
• Liriano entered the game with a 1-4 record and 9.13 ERA.
• Liriano never had thrown a shutout, or even a complete game, in the major leagues.
• Liriano never had thrown a shutout, or even a complete game, in the minor leagues.
• Liriano isn’t exactly known as a money pitcher. When America last saw him, he was melting down in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Yankees last fall.
But with Liriano, there always has been the promise of something great … if he stayed healthy … if he believed in himself a little more … if he learned how to locate his pitches when the moments grew big. On Tuesday, the “ifs” were frozen into a remarkable feat.
Remember that the major leagues witnessed five no-hitters last year, not counting our old friend Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game. That’s an average of one no-hitter every five weeks or so. Thanks, Francisco, for keeping us right on schedule.
As always, a healthy dose of baseball irony accompanied Liriano’s gem. He was opposed Tuesday by Edwin Jackson, who pitched brilliantly, allowing the game’s only run on a Jason Kubel homer in the fourth.
Jackson has a no-hitter on his résumé — a remarkably similar one. While with the Arizona Diamondbacks last year, Jackson zeroed the Tampa Bay Rays despite issuing eight walks. He burned through 149 pitches. Liriano needed 123 pitches because of his six walks, which makes him sound like Cliff Lee by comparison.
Now, fans will want to know if Liriano’s no-hitter will turn around the Twins’ lost season. That is impossible to say. But it can’t hurt, particularly given Liriano’s frequently fragile confidence.
Mostly, though, we should appreciate the way baseball can seize the national sports conversation at a time when you least suspect. All no-hitters are unexpected — even if your name is Roy Halladay. But this one, a moment of icy bliss for baseball’s worst team, was more unexpected than most.