One night in 1987, Nieves put it all together
This is the second in FOXSportsWisconsin.com's five-part series on the 25th anniversary of the Milwaukee Brewers' 13-0 start to the 1987 season.
Sunday: 13-0 still special 25 years later
Today: Juan Nieves' no-hitter makes it 9-0
Tuesday: The Easter Sunday Game
Wednesday: 13-1. Now what?
Thursday: Free George Webb hamburgers for everyone!
Wild inconsistency and delivery issues aren't typically the staples that allow a pitcher to produce a super-human game at the major league level. But sometimes, if a pitcher's stuff straddles the border just enough between wild and effective, nine innings of magic can be summoned from the depths of the soul on a singular occasion.
Juan Nieves understood this fine line as well as anybody. He was a talented 22-year-old who hadn't put the pieces together on a promising pitching career when he took the mound for the Milwaukee Brewers on April 15, 1987. When his fastballs and sliders hummed, he knew he was tough to hit.
When his fastball sputtered and his breaking pitches didn't break? Well, that's why he had a career record of 12-12 during his second big-league season. No one knew which pitcher would show up that April night, least of all Nieves.
"I really didn't have a very good delivery," said Nieves, now a bullpen coach for the Chicago White Sox. "I remember my biggest challenge was not always the hitter. I just wanted to throw strikes. My biggest issue was always that."
What elevated Nieves to a new level that night was a constant cold drizzle that made it difficult to hit, a fastball that stung batters' hands and a burning desire not to disappoint his pitching brethren, who had helped Milwaukee open the season 8-0.
"The starters were talking to each other saying, 'You've got to keep it going,' " Nieves said. "Of course, you don't want to be the guy that loses the first game of the season. Pride comes in handy. Pride is huge in that respect."
Nieves then took the mound in Baltimore and threw the game of his life during Milwaukee's 7-0 victory. He became the second-youngest player in major league history to toss a no-hitter, walking five batters with seven strikeouts, as the Brewers moved to 9-0 — part of a 13-game winning streak to open the season.
It was one of the key games that came to define the Brewers' 1987 season — one still remembered 25 years later.
A special night
Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn had seen enough of Nieves to know that when he was on, he could compete against any team in the league.
"When he did not walk people, he always seemed to have fewer hits than innings pitched, which was always an indication of a pitcher with good stuff," Trebelhorn said. "Those kind of guys are capable of throwing shutouts and, on occasion, maybe even flirting with a no-hitter."
Although Nieves had struggled as a big league pitcher — he went 11-12 with a 4.92 ERA as a rookie in 1986 — many baseball personnel figured it was only a matter of time before Nieves began to excel.
Nieves was a prep school standout in Connecticut and was highly sought by several colleges and major league scouts. He signed with the Brewers in 1983, reportedly receiving a $150,000 bonus, and dominated the minor-league circuit. From 1983-85, he went 33-9, including an 8-3 mark with Triple-A Vancouver in 1985.
When his second major league season arrived in 1987, he appeared to have turned a corner in his pitching career. And his talent was on full display on April 15 against the Orioles.
"With his stuff, and the plays the guys were making and the fact we had a lead, I thought we had a shot for a no-hitter that night," said Bill Schroeder, who caught Nieves' signature game.
Nieves cruised through the first three innings, walking two batters, and the score remained 0-0. He was aided by a diving catch from left fielder Jim Paciorek to rob Eddie Murray of a hit in the second inning.
"The running joke in most bullpens is after the starting pitcher throws a 1-2-3 inning in the first inning, you say, 'Well tonight might be the no-hitter,' " said Dan Plesac, the Brewers' closer that season. "To be completely honest, I would have been shocked if he didn't throw it. Our mojo was so good that the thought of Juan Nieves not throwing one never really entered my mind. Everything was going our way."
Brewers shortstop Dale Sveum broke the tie in the top of the fourth inning with a home run, giving Milwaukee a 1-0 lead, although a no-hitter was still the furthest thing from Nieves' mind.
"I'm not thinking about it," Nieves said. "I'm thinking about the next inning, next out. It's the fourth inning. By no means is anything happening. It was winning the game. The biggest issue at the big leagues is winning the games at all costs."
The Brewers scored six more runs in the final three innings to give Nieves a 7-0 cushion entering the bottom of the ninth. Up came the top of the Orioles' lineup.
Three outs — and no hits — stood between Nieves and history.
Finishing the job
Nieves didn't want to think about the prospect of pitching a no-hitter before he had completed the task, but the signs were there in the dugout from his teammates.
"When he came off the field, nobody said a word to him," former Brewers outfielder Rob Deer said. "It was like, 'He's throwing a no hitter. I can't believe this.'
"You stay in the same routine. Whatever you do, you do not say the word 'no-hitter' when someone is throwing a no-hitter. It's baseball etiquette."
Added Nieves: "The dugout is really quiet and no one is walking around. I'm looking at the lineup, like who's coming up next?"
In the ninth inning, Nieves retired Orioles left fielder and leadoff hitter Ken Gerhart on a ground ball to third. He followed by recording a lineout of second baseman Rick Burleson to third.
With Cal Ripken Jr. up next, Nieves fell behind in the count 2-0, and Schroeder made the decision to walk him. Instead, the pair would face Murray, another Future Hall of Famer, just like Ripken.
"The game was already 7-0," Nieves said. "If it was 1-0, it would have been a whole different mindset. Worst-case scenario, it's a tie game, so you have to go after him."
Murray made perhaps the most solid contact all night on Nieves when he sliced a ball into the outfield that tailed away from Brewers center fielder Robin Yount. But just before the ball hit the ground, Yount extended his body and made a diving catch to preserve the no-hitter.
"Robin was so intent on making sure he got to that ball that he thought he had to dive," Trebelhorn said. "As it turned out, he probably didn't have to dive. We're in the entertainment business, and what an entertaining way to finish it."
Schroeder said the wind conditions made it especially difficult to judge the path of fly balls that night, but when Yount secured the ball in his mitt, the Brewers celebrated Nieves' spectacular night with an impromptu mosh pit on the mound.
Nieves became the first Puerto Rican to record a no-hitter in major league baseball. He went on to finish 32-25 in three seasons before arm troubles abruptly ended his career in 1988.
The no-hitter serves as the defining moment of a short big-league career for Nieves, whose wild inconsistency was consistent enough to fool the Baltimore Orioles on one cold, rainy, magical night.
"The sun, the moon and the stars," Nieves said, "lined up for me pretty good that day."
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