We’ve Inspected Rocket City Inside and Outside. No Gods or Angels Were Found.

Rocket City Trash Pandas

Of all the things that happened in baseball this weekend, the only one I cared about was a Double-A game between the Chattanooga Lookouts and the Rocket City Trash Pandas. Now, I know what you’re thinking. If an April Double-A game is worth caring about at all, it must be a real doozy. To have it overshadow a weekend of MLB action — the Rays went to 9-0, Jordan Walker tied Ted Williams’ record for longest career-opening hitting streak, Oneil Cruz got hurt — well surely I must be exaggerating.

Try this on for size: The Trash Pandas led 3–0 heading into the seventh and final inning of the game, having not allowed a hit. They went on to lose that game 7–5, still not having allowed a hit. “You can’t predict baseball” is a bit of a cliché; baseball has been around for more than 150 years. All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. But allowing seven runs while preserving a no-hitter? That’s worthy of detailed examination.

Let’s set the stage: Saturday afternoon in Madison, Alabama. “Rocket City” refers to nearby Huntsville, site of Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Center — this is where NASA develops its big rockets, including the Saturn V and the Space Shuttle’s main engines. The baseball team should be called the Huntsville Raccoons, but Brandiose (the company behind the epic bacon ftw-ification of minor league baseball over the past decade) decided to get cute. Contrast that to the Lookouts, who have one of the best logos in baseball at any level. The first iteration of the Chattanooga Lookouts was founded in 1885; the team has been around in its current form since the 1970s.

Trash Pandas (it’s already getting hard to type that) starter Coleman Crow, a 28th-round pick, had one of the best days of his career: six innings, six strikeouts, two walks, no hits. Too bad he didn’t get a chance to see out no-hitter personally, but it was the second game of the season, he’d already thrown 78 pitches, and you can never be too careful about these things. Besides, the Trash Pandas have a particularly good closer.

The sheer absurdity of seven runs, no hits, just wallops you right in the face. But the real juice to this story is in the details.

College baseball fans already know Ben Joyce. Last year he was a late-inning reliever for a University of Tennessee team that went 57–9. Not the closer, though the Vols were so dominant (they outscored opponents 613–192) that the bullpen only got credited with nine saves all year. Joyce made headlines for being, in all likelihood, the hardest-throwing college pitcher of all time. He topped out at 105.5 mph last season and has stated his intention to beat Aroldis Chapman’s MLB record of 105.8 one day. Small wonder the Angels spent a third-round pick on Joyce last year. (Oh yeah, in case you didn’t know already, the Trash Pandas are an Angels affiliate. Even their minor leaguers are getting Tungsten Arm O’Doyle’d.)

With a three-run lead, surely the win would be safe at the very least. But as Joyce delivered his second pitch of the inning, Rocket City play-by-play man Josh Caray — yes, of those Carays, he’s Harry’s grandson — lamented that the radar gun was not operational. Radar gun busted while the hardest-throwing pitcher in the minors is on for the biggest moment of his professional career? As omens go, maybe it isn’t quite as bad as being handed the black spot by a blind man named Pew, but it’s not great. (Trash Pandas first baseman Tucker Flint would know a thing or two about the perfidy of a one-legged seafaring man.)

It was obvious from the start that Joyce was having trouble locating. His first three pitches all missed outside badly, and it was at this point that Caray reminded his audience that the most important thing was the win, not preserving the no-hitter. Three pitches, and already we’re in expectation management mode.

Joyce walked the first batter he faced on five pitches, then started the second batter 2–0, prompting a mound visit from pitching coach Michael Wuertz. “This is a bit of a disconcerting start for him this outing,” Caray said. But as clear as it was that Joyce had no idea where the ball was going, this was hardly an unrecoverable position. Anyone who’s ever complained about the save rule can tell you how big a three-run lead is with three outs to get.

Joyce walked the second hitter he faced, Allan Cerda, on five pitches. But he wasn’t missing by much. Here’s ball four, which Caray was certain had been strike two.

In fact, all four of Joyce’s balls to Cerda only missed the zone by a couple inches. I guess pitchers who come out as wild as he did don’t get borderline calls.

The next hitter, Nick Quintana, had just seen Joyce miss the zone eight times in 10 pitches. So naturally he swung at the first pitch and popped out to second. Now Joyce was just a ground ball from being out of the inning. He issued another five-pitch walk to Daniel Vellojin, almost hitting the Lookouts catcher in the thigh with ball three, but came back to strike out pinch-hitter James Free on three pitches.

At this point, everything is probably going to be fine. Joyce had just blown a hitter away with fastballs. Anything — a pop-up, a strikeout, even a scalded line drive right at a defender — would end the game to preserve the win, the shutout, and the no-hitter, if Joyce could only get the ball near the plate.

Nope: A four-pitch walk to force in a run. At this point, Chattanooga manager Jose Moreno called for pinch-runner Ilvin Fernandez to replace Vellojin; the tying run was now in scoring position, and Moreno wanted someone more likely to score than his catcher.

Still, no-hitter intact and a force play at any base. Not the end of the world, particularly when Joyce got ahead of Jose Torres 0–2. Maybe it’s an every-other-batter thing, where Joyce Jekyll-and-Hyde’d his way from Greg Maddux to Steve Blass and back, depending on the batter.

Ahead 0–2, Joyce threw a fastball on the outside corner. Catcher Edgar Quero caught it, framed, it and jumped up to celebrate as Caray shouted… but he didn’t get the call.

The center field camera angle at Toyota Field leaves something to be desired, but according to Gameday the pitch was ever so slightly off the plate. Had Joyce gotten this call, his wildness would likely have resulted in nothing more than some minor concerns about his command. The sports world at large would’ve remained blissfully unaware of the Rocket City Trash Pandas. But he didn’t get the call, so he had to throw another pitch.


There are three kinds of people reading this article. One: People who are confused why I didn’t at least mention up top what the MLB record is for most runs allowed in a no-hitter. Two: People who are confused why I didn’t mention said record and stopped reading so they could run a Stathead search and find out. Three: People who already know the record but still don’t know why I didn’t mention it.

The record is four. On July 1, 1990, Andy Hawkins of the Yankees was no-hitting the White Sox through seven innings. He started the eighth with two pop-outs, but on what should’ve been the last out of the inning, a Mike Blowers error allowed a very young Sammy Sosa to reach. Sosa stole second, and then Hawkins walked Ozzie Guillen and Lance Johnson to load the bases. (There’s wildness, there’s the yips, and then there’s losing the zone so badly you walk Ozzie Guillen.)

Then Robin Ventura hit what looked like a routine fly ball to left to end the inning.

Jim Leyritz never really had a bead on it, perhaps because of the wind. (Every time I go to Chicago, I think someone should really warn you about that wind they have. That’s one windy city.) The ball hit him in the throwing hand and caromed into the corner as he fell to his knees like he’d just taken a wiffle ball bat to the nuts in an America’s Funniest Home Videos clip. The bases cleared, and Ventura scored a batter later on another error in the outfield.

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

I don’t want to be too hard on the Trash Pandas. They just lived through the worst inning of their lives, and for a team called the Trash Pandas no less. But as wild as Joyce was — 27 pitches, 10 strikes — he did everything he needed to do in order to preserve not only the no-hitter but also the lead, even conceding the borderline call a pitch before.

Center fielder Jeremiah Jackson looked a little shaky going back on this ball, and that’s understandable because he isn’t actually a center fielder. Jackson, a 2018 second-round pick, is primarily a shortstop; Saturday marked the first appearance in center of his entire professional career. Which might explain why he Leyritzed this ball. It didn’t bounce off the heel of his glove; it doesn’t even look like the ball hit him.

Last fall, it was fashionable, in the days after the FIFA World Cup final between France and Argentina, to declare that we had just witnessed the greatest soccer game of all time, if not the greatest match of all time in any sport. I thought that was a bit hyperbolic in the moment, but it’s clear why everyone was so worked up. The drama and tension of a great sporting event stem from anticipation. At any given moment, we’re thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” That World Cup final was so special because from the 80th minute on, the most exciting plot twist possible happened at every opportunity, from France erasing a two-goal deficit in moments all the way to the back-to-back scoring chances in the last seconds of extra time.

But that World Cup final was special — unique, some would argue — because that hope usually goes unsatisfied. The bases loaded, two-outs scenario more frequently ends in a routine groundout than a memorable walk-off grand slam. Watch enough baseball, and you learn to hope for the momentous but to expect the mundane. Joyce looked lost for most of the seventh inning, but it wasn’t until after the ball passed through Jackson’s glove and landed on the ground that it looked like the Trash Pandas would actually blow it.

Not that there was a lot of time to contemplate impending doom. On Opening Day, the Phillies had a nightmare inning of their own, allowing nine runs in the fourth inning of an 11–7 loss to Texas. After the game, J.T. Realmuto noted that the pitch clock gives such innings the tendency to snowball. “With the pitch clock, you can’t ever slow the pitcher down,” he said. “It’s crazy. Once an offense gets rolling and the pitcher gets on the ropes a little bit, it’s really hard. You have to make a pitch quickly to get an out. Because momentum is going to be huge now with how fast things happen and the pitcher not being able to get a breath in.”

Nevertheless, disaster innings usually unfold in slow motion, particularly when the cause of the disaster is a pitcher’s sudden inability to throw strikes. Joyce was under time pressure, but he never looked upset or unfocused. He just kept chucking fastball after fastball a foot off the plate. He threw 27 pitches, walked four batters, even stopped for a mound visit at one point. But from his first pitch of the inning to the moment Torres’ fly ball dropped at Jackson’s feet, only 10 minutes and 24 seconds had elapsed.


At that point, the Trash Pandas were undeniably in trouble. The no-hitter was still intact, but that was past irrelevant after blowing the lead; it almost made things worse. If Joyce had blown the lead by allowing three singles and a grand slam, nobody outside the ballpark would have cared. That’s a rough way to lose, but it happens every week. Instead, the Trash Pandas had just made history, matching the worst no-hitter meltdown ever seen in MLB. Joyce was gassed, and Chattanooga’s top prospect, Noelvi Marte, was due up.

In came 23-year-old lefthander Eric Torres, a 14th-round pick out of Kansas State who’d been Rocket City’s closer for most of 2022. That year, he posted a 1.59 ERA with 22 saves in 42 appearances and struck out 81 batters in just 51 innings, but with the occasional wildness you’d expect from a minor league reliever: 23 walks and seven hit batters. But Joyce had thrown nearly twice as many balls as strikes, and Torres needed to get just one out in order to stop the bleeding and get his teammates back up with a chance to win the game in the bottom of the inning.

It was at this point that things got weird.

Torres, a bit undersized for a pitcher at 6-foot, 195 pounds, throws with a low-angle crossfire delivery. With the radar gun not working, it’s unknown how hard he was throwing on Saturday, but his fastball is far from overwhelming in velocity. Nevertheless, the angle of his delivery can be unsettling, with the ball starting inside to lefties and angling toward right-handed hitters. So much so that his first pitch nailed Marte right on the outside of the left knee, leaving Chattanooga’s third baseman on the ground in a heap for nearly two minutes before he was able to dust himself off and take his base.

Torres started the next batter, Ivan Johnson, with a strike. Surely hitting Marte was just jitters and the Trash Pandas could get out of the inning, right? Nope: Torres hit Johnson in the foot with the 0–1 pitch. The next batter up was Rece Hinds, who way back when had started the inning by walking off Joyce. Torres hit him too, then walked Cerda on four pitches to force in another run. Out came Wuertz for his second mound visit of the inning.

“I don’t know what [he] can do or say right now,” Caray said.

Torres, by this point, was completely underwater. His delivery was varying not just in terms of release point but also pace — rushing or slowing things down to aim the ball. He did the latter on his second pitch to Nick Quintana, which bounced and went to the backstop, allowing Johnson to score and make it a 7–3 game. Torres fell behind 3–1, then pumped three strikes right down the middle, all of which Quintana fouled off.

Then Torres hit Quintana, too.

The first moment of concern for the Trash Pandas had come a little over 20 minutes earlier, as Joyce’s struggles with his command became apparent. Concern for a quick inning morphed into concern for the integrity of the no-hitter, and then into concern for the win. After Torres hit his fourth batter of the inning, I started to worry about baseball’s most immutable law: If you can’t get enough outs, they won’t let you leave.

What if Torres simply could not find the plate? How long until the Trash Pandas had to make another pitching change? Would that pitcher fare any better? If not, how long until some Lookouts batter had had enough and swung through three straight balls a foot off the plate just to end the madness?

But a decision made six batters earlier, before the dropped fly ball, the blown save, and the pitching change, brought an end to things. When Moreno brought in Fernandez to pinch-run for Vellojin, with two outs in the last inning of a 3–1 game, surely he never in a million years thought Fernandez would actually hit. This was a player making his first appearance in Double-A. In his only action above rookie-ball, 29 games at Single-A Daytona last year, Fernandez had hit .175/.250/.225 in 90 plate appearances.

That’s not the hitter a manager would want up with the bases loaded and two outs in a normal situation. But it’s precisely the hitter a manager would want up in a situation as bizarre as this. And Fernandez obliged, striking out on four pitches to close out the madness.

The Trash Pandas scored twice in the bottom of the inning and even brought the tying run to the plate with one out, but they couldn’t overturn the deficit. Allowing seven runs in a no-hitter is surely embarrassing enough if you win; doing so in a loss is, well, most likely unprecedented.

This was a seven-inning game, by the way, because it was the first leg of a doubleheader. Put another way, Rocket City couldn’t just go home to lick their wounds. They had to go inside, change into jerseys that read TRASH PANDAS across the front in a font I’d describe as suitable for a 1990s professional roller hockey team, and go play another entire game.

Players who had just sat through the seventh inning from hell must’ve understood in that moment what Sisyphus felt as he watched that stupid boulder roll all the way back down the hill again. But the Trash Pandas bounced back from that crushing disappointment with astonishing aplomb. Two Rocket City pitchers, Sam Bachman and Brett Kerry, not only kept the Lookouts off the board but also combined to allow only one hit themselves, a second-inning double to Hinds that was nullified on a fielder’s choice two batters later.

Fourteen innings of one-hit ball would constitute quite a day at the office under anything resembling ordinary circumstances. But the only ball out of the infield in the top of the seventh inning of game 1 dropped inexplicably, turning a day of triumph into an absolute Thomas Pynchon novel of an inning.


Human beings abhor randomness. We’re preconditioned to see patterns. Most people who believe in God, and plenty of people who don’t, believe in some kind of universal plan. All failure is instructive, all suffering redemptive, all adversity a precursor to some future achievement. We’re taught to treasure defeat and suffering. “What we obtain too cheaply we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value,” wrote Thomas Paine.

Everything happens for a reason, in short.

And that’s true for what happened to the Trash Pandas in a literal sense. What we saw on Saturday was the exceptional results of a combination of extremely familiar factors. Minor league pitchers struggle with command all the time. Minor league fielders struggle to make routine plays at an unfamiliar position all the time. No single element of the Trash Pandas’ nightmare inning was in and of itself newsworthy. Only when five walks, four hit batters, an error, and a couple borderline ball-strike calls combined one after the other almost without respite — and only then — did the events of a sparsely attended minor league game in northern Alabama make national news. Sometimes the most ridiculous thing that can happen does happen, then it happens over and over and over again.

But a lesson? A meaning? The senselessness of that inning rebukes the very notion.

Therein I find empathy for Joyce, Torres, Jackson, and even the now-forgotten Crow, whose no-hitter was after all preserved at the expense of the victory. Will he esteem the former more now that it was obtained at such a great cost? I think not. I admire the Trash Pandas’ resilience, their ability to absorb such a bizarre and dispiriting loss and bounce back immediately. Most of all, I’m astonished at the man-bites-dog quality of this game, evidence that after decades and decades of baseball, the national pastime can still pull out the occasional surprise.

The lessons (such as they are) from this doubleheader include the importance of throwing strikes, the perils of taking your eye off the ball, the value of having a short memory. These are foundational precepts, taught to every child who plays baseball long enough to pitch off a 46-foot mound. And yet professional ballplayers in their 20s can still fall afoul of the basics, and in extreme cases make history by allowing seven runs without a hit.

Baseball is a game of failure. It is unforgiving and relentless from game to game, and from pitch to pitch. It punishes mistakes without mercy, and sometimes, without purpose.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

This was great!