The Year’s First No-Hitter Belongs to Joe Musgrove and Padres

It’s always at the end of the sixth inning that it starts to feel real, that history begins to creep in at the edges, making its way onto the field of view, even as you might try to push it out. The way the game is arranged in sets of three, radiating outward, three into three into nine; when you’ve completed six, you’ve gone through nine twice, with nine more to go. Now comes the third time through the order, when you’ve held it this close. Now comes the part of the game that, especially in our era, it is rare for a starting pitcher to see. Through six, onto the seventh: the power to continue resting on one person’s rapidly fatiguing shoulders.

There have already been several no-hitters through six this season. Trevor Bauer gave up four runs in the seventh. Corbin Burnes and José Berríos matched each other out-for-out through six; Burnes opened the seventh by giving up a homer, and Berríos’ grip loosened in the eighth. Joe Musgrove, on Friday, through six at Globe Life Field, having given the Rangers nothing outside one errant pitch in the fourth; the Padres, with 52 years behind them, the only team never to see one of their own pitchers throw a no-hitter. Through six, those dark, towering stadium walls blocking out the fading sky. This strange hour is when things become unsettled; the precipice of possibility grows closer. You can just see over the edge, almost reach it. Twice, all nine batters have been retired. Nine more to go.

***

On a website that looks like it hasn’t had a design update for the last decade, there’s a news item from 2010 accompanied by a photo: on the right, Adrián González, wearing those bland, bygone navy Padres jerseys, holding a plaque and smiling; on the left, the vice president of the San Diego Hall of Champions. Towering above them both is a young man in the middle, also holding a plaque, wearing a letterman jacket and an awkward smile. They are all on the field at Petco Park, “Grossmont High senior JOE MUSGROVE continues to make headlines wherever he pitches,” the news item reads.

The Grossmont High baseball team is called the Foothillers — the ‘Hillers, for short. Located in El Cajon, in San Diego County, the program has an impressive track record when it comes to developing major-league talent. Steven Brault of the Pirates played there; so did Barry Zito, briefly, but he transferred. Joe Musgrove, as a sophomore, didn’t make much of a mark. He had only started pitching the year before, and he didn’t spend long on the varsity team before being demoted.

The following season, though, he was a force. He was the team’s best pitcher; he batted over .400. And in the championship game, against the ‘Hillers’ hated rivals, he pitched them to the win. Two hits and no runs over a complete game. Not quite a no-hitter, but enough: more than enough, really, with eight runs behind him. The final out of the game was a strikeout, and when the umpire made the call, Musgrove opened his arms — ready for the elated dogpile, ready to carry all that joy.

***

After Musgrove was drafted, it took five seasons in the minors before he would appear in a major-league game. His progress came in fits and starts, dragged out by numerous injuries. When he finally made his debut, it was in an unenviable position: in the middle of a game against the then-powerful Blue Jays that Lance McCullers Jr. had to exit abruptly. Musgrove came out of the bullpen, unknown, certainly, to the majority of people watching, and steamrolled the Blue Jays lineup: over four and a third, he allowed just one hit, striking out eight. The following year, he won the World Series. He was traded, for the second time in his short career, to the Pirates; he finally had a full, uninterrupted season as a starter in 2019; and in the early weeks of 2021, yet another trade brought him back to San Diego. He made a start there before, two years ago, a moment of homecoming. His first start as a member of the hometown team: six innings, eight strikeouts, three hits, no runs. Not a no-hitter, but with the Padres scoring seven runs, it was more than enough.

***

A no-hitter taken into the ninth inning is a coin flip. On one side, history; on the other, a could-have-been, an excruciating near-miss. Most of the players who take a no-hitter into the ninth do not go on to make up for it by throwing a no-hitter at some other point in their career. For those who approach these final three outs, it’s now or never. Every time the bat makes contact with the ball, it’s a sharp breath drawn in — every pitch counted down, every ball outside the zone another clenched knuckle.

The Padres have had five such near-misses. The most recent by an individual pitcher was Chris Young in 2006, who recorded an out in the ninth against the Pirates before a pinch-hit home run ended his bid. (He ended up not completing the game.) Someone recorded the moment from the stands and uploaded it to YouTube, and the tragedy is palpable: the groans echoing around the stadium when the bat makes contact, the begging for an outfielder to catch it even as it’s clearly gone. The comments, along with the title of the upload, are riddled with sad faces. “I really thought we were about to witness history until that home run,” one commenter says, the sigh almost audible from over a decade in the future.

Musgrove was well over a hundred pitches by the time he entered the ninth. He was visibly fatigued. The margin between the tantalizingly achievable finish line and another entry in the list of his team’s close calls was so thin. A sharp line drive from David Dahl sounded — looked, for a split second — like it could have been the end. Instead, it was the first out. The second out took four pitches. And the final batter of the game — Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who, a few hours before, had been the first batter Musgrove retired — grounded the second pitch he saw to short. That routine play, so commonplace and predictable that, under other circumstances, one might not even have bothered watching it through to completion — instead, every split second of it was imbued with electric uncertainty. And then the ball was in the leather, and the umpire made a fist — and it was over, and it was real.

And the second it became real, the meanings of everything that came before changed, sharpened and brightened by the scene of celebration unfolding on the field. Chris Young, whose lost no-hitter had been such a tragedy, watched from a box as someone on his old team finally achieved what he hadn’t — against the team of which he is currently general manager. The sad YouTube comment has a new addendum, added two days ago: “Worth the wait!” they write, like a message sent into the past. Victor Caratini, behind the plate for this and Alec Mills‘ no-hitter last September, became the holder of an entirely unique honor: the first catcher to oversee consecutive no-hitters. Decades of Padres fans who showed up to the ballpark, hopeful, somehow, that this might be the day; Joe Musgrove, toiling away in rookie ball, at the bottom of the dog pile holding his plaque on the Petco Park grass. All of it, now, united in memory, inextricable from this moment of shared joy: the day the hometown kid threw the first no-hitter in Padres history.





RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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Robbie314
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Robbie314

Go back to that website that hasn’t been updated in 10 years – and, judging by the navigation bar, really hasn’t been updated since 2010 – and keep reading past the first paragraph.

“Joining him on the Blue Team will be La Costa Canyon infielder Phillip Evans…”, and yes, it’s that Phillip Evans, the most anonymous owner of a 158 wRC+ in 2020 and a 229 wRC+ in 2021 (yes, both over very small samples)! I’ve been secretly hoping to read a Fangraphs article about him for the past few days.