When it comes time to pick which Red Sox games to go to, many fans look to see when the Yankees are coming to town. Others figure out when Pedro is likely to pitch. Not many people look for an April match-up against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But I'll take advantage of any chance I get to go to Fenway. I didn't originally have a ticket to this game, but was offered one with a week's notice. I had to break the plans I had for a friend to come visit from out-of-state for the weekend. But this game just proves that every day at Fenway is a chance for something exciting to happen.
It was Kids' Opening Day, so children were selected to accompany players on the field as the line-ups were announced, help out the grounds crew, throw out the first pitch, and act as P.A. announcers. Just like Opening Day, a giant flag was unfurled across the Green Monster. Balloons were released at the end of the National Anthem, but the celebration was just beginning.
The game started out innocently enough. Derek Lowe retired the side in order in the first. In the bottom of the first, Rickey Henderson led off with a home run. It was the 80th of his career, and extended his major league records for career leadoff homers and runs scored. Lowe set down the Devil Rays in order in the top of the second. In the third, he walked Brent Abernathy to start the inning. "There goes the perfect game," I joked as I recorded the walk on my scorecard, but he retired the next three batters to finish one trip through the line-up without surrendering a hit.
In the bottom of the third, the Red Sox broke out and scored six runs, chasing Tampa Bay starter Delvin James. Manny Ramirez, Shea Hillenbrand, Jason Varitek, and Rey Sanchez all had RBI hits. So when Lowe took the mound for the fourth, he had a seven run lead. He struck out the first batter. Then Steve Cox hit a drive to right field that looked like it could have been a double, but Trot Nixon made a nice running catch at the warning track. The next batter grounded out, and four innings had now passed with no Devil Rays hits.
At what point do you start thinking about a no-hitter? Is four innings enough to call it a no-hit bid? Probably not, but it did make me start thinking about taking pictures of the scoreboard at the end of each inning.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Red Sox tacked on another run on a Nomar Garciaparra double, making it 8-0. By the start of the fifth, fans around me started talking about the no-hitter. I cringed, because I follow the players' superstition of not talking about such a feat while it's in progress. I didn't want to jinx it, so I tried to block it all out. (And I'm just a fan. I can only imagine how hard it must be for the pitcher to concentrate!) But Lowe again retired the side in order, and we stood up to applaud when he walked off the field at the end of the inning. It was official now, after five innings. We were watching a bid for a no-hitter.
Tampa brought out Travis Harper to pitch the fifth, and he made quick work of the Red Sox, striking out Varitek, Nixon, and Sanchez. Lowe returned the favor in the top of the sixth, as Russ Johnson, Felix Escalona, and Jason Tyner all whiffed. Six innings, and still no hits.
I went to a game here last September against the Yankees, in which Mike Mussina had a perfect game going into the ninth. There were two outs and two strikes before Carl Everett's single broke it up. I remember telling everyone around me that day that I'd rather go my whole life without seeing a perfect game than witness one pitched by the hated Yankees. I was spared the final agony that night, but it was too close for comfort. Then two weeks before today's game I had again gone to see the Red Sox battle the Yankees. It was overall a good weekend, with the Sox winning three of the four games in dramatic fashion. Of course the one I went to was the one loss, when Mussina again took a perfect game bid into the sixth before it was broken up. But today, finally, the shoe was on the other foot. Would I actually get the chance to witness history made by someone on my team?
The Red Sox didn't score in the sixth, and it was back to the mound for Derek Lowe. A strikeout, a groundout, and a fly ball, and the inning was over. Seven innings! Everyone stood to cheer as Lowe returned to the dugout, so we were already on our feet for the seventh inning stretch. The Sox got two runners on in the bottom of the inning, but no one cared that they didn't score.
It was only 22 days earlier that Lowe had made his first start of the year in Baltimore. In that game, he took a no-hitter into the eighth before it was broken up by Tony Batista's infield single. The seven innings he pitched that night had matched the longest outing of his career.
This time, the first batter in the eighth lifted a fly ball to left field. It was a routine fly, but it was still a great relief when Manny caught it, and a huge cheer went up. I remember saying, "I've never been so stressed out with an eight run lead!" The next batter hit a foul popup that was caught by Jose Offerman. Abernathy was up next. He was the one who had walked in the third, and he ran the count full. (We were now booing every ball, even the ones obviously outside the strike zone.) But he grounded to Nomar, who threw to first to end the eighth.
Wow, eight innings without a hit! But the Red Sox had been there before. In 2000, Pedro Martinez had a no-hitter going against these same Devil Rays, but it was broken up in the ninth. Then in 2001, Tim Wakefield lost a no-hitter in the ninth, again in Tampa Bay. Hideo Nomo had thrown a no-no for the Sox in Baltimore last year, but there had not been one in Fenway since Dave Morehead's in 1965.
It seemed like the bottom of the eighth would never end. Three walks and an RBI single from Nomar (plating the 9th run of the game) loaded the bases with no outs. Brian Daubach struck out, and then Shea Hillenbrand was hit by a pitch to force in the tenth run of the game. Not that we didn't want to see runs score, but we didn't mind that Varitek and Nixon struck out to end the inning. As soon as the last out was made, we jumped to our feet to cheer on Lowe as he came out to pitch the ninth.
When Lowe came to the Red Sox (in a steal of a deal with today's battery-mate Jason Varitek in exchange for Heathcliff Slocumb) he was a starter. He began the 1998 season in the Sox' rotation, but received little luck and no run support, and ran up an 0-7 record. He was moved to the bullpen, where he excelled in the set-up role in 1999. He became the closer in 2000, and tied for the league lead with 42 saves. But he struggled in 2001, losing four games in April alone, and by the end of the season he had lost the closer job and was being converted back into a starter. And now here he was, three outs away from pitching the first Fenway no-hitter in 37 years.
Russ Johnson led off. Strike one, then a little flair to second base, but it landed safely in Rey Sanchez' glove. Felix Escalona was next, and he also took strike one. The next pitch was lofted into shallow left-center. Coming off the bat it looked sure to drop in, and a collective groan rippled through the park. But Rickey Henderson, playing his first game in center field since 1998, ran in and made a basket catch just in time! Yes! "Rickey, Rickey!" we cheered. One more batter to go. It was Jason Tyner, and the count was quickly 0-2. The next two pitches were out of the strike zone. "I can't look," I kept saying. As Red Sox fans we're trained to expect the worst even as we hope for the best. But I did watch, and saw Tyner hit a soft grounder to second, where Rey Sanchez threw on to Jose Offerman at first, and it was over! Derek Lowe had done it! It was the first complete game of his career, and it was a no-hitter!
The fans erupted in cheers. No one wanted to leave the park. The loudspeakers blared songs like "I've Got Friends in Low Places" and "Low-Rider" in honor of Lowe. The players were all jumping up and down together on the field.
A few minutes later, Derek Lowe came back out to address the fans: "I'm just glad all you guys were here to enjoy this with me. I know last year you guys had no confidence in me, and I deserved that. And I just want to come out in this park and give the confidence back to you guys. And I'm just very glad that you guys stayed with me and cheered me on throughout the game. Thank you very much."
No, Derek, thank you for giving me and 32,836 of my closest friends an experience we'll never forget!