The 2004 season was basically a six-month recreation of an Edvard Munch painting. After a respectable start - the team were 12-14 at one point - things fell apart following the season-ending injury to Richie Sexson. By the time May 18th rolled around in Atlanta, we were already 8.5 games back, having lost five in a row, and 9 of the last 11. Randy Johnson had been his usual, impeccable self: in eight starts, he had a 2.83 ERA, with 68 strikeouts in 54 innings. However, he still had a losing record: his previous start, against the Mets, was not untypical, as he allowed three hits over seven, but took the loss in a 1-0 decision [one of 34 times we'd be held to one or zero runs that year]
It was a Tuesday night at Turner Field, and an unsurprisingly small crowd of 23,381 were on hand to see the fourth-place Braves host the last-place Diamondbacks. They didn't know they were about to witness history. And neither did I, to the extent that I left the house and went to get a haircut: fortunately, I went to Sports Clips, where they had the game on. Johnson wasted no time, setting down the Braves in order in the first, on ten pitches, with two strikeouts. He repeated the medicine in the second, though Johnny Estrada made him battle, in an 11-pitch at-bat before going down swinging. It would be the only three-ball count of the night.
The Diamondbacks had taken the lead at that point, on an Alex Cintron RBI double, but were struggling themselves against Mike Hampton, who allowed only three hits through six innings. The way Johnson was pitching, however, that early run looked like it could be enough. Through the first half of the game, the Atlanta hitters didn't even come within a sniff of a hit. Of the first 17 batters, eight went down by the K, all but one swinging. The no-hitter almost ended in the cruelest of fashions at that point, Hampton chopping a dribbler to the left of second, but Cintron made a superb bare-handed play to Shea Hillebrand at first
From there, it was almost only a matter of time, in front of an increasingly-appreciate Braves' crowd. Johnson struck out five more over the final three frames, ending things with a 98 mph pitch to pinch-hitter Eddie Perez that he couldn't touch. Catcher Robby Hammock did his best impression of Tigger, bouncing into Johnson's surprised arms, and the Diamondbacks had their first ever perfect game. It was Johnson's second no-hitter - the other coming while with the Mariners - and ended a period of almost 13 years since the National League had seen a perfect game. Johnson also became the oldest pitcher to carry out the feat.
It was a special night for Hammock too, who grew up in the nearby suburb of Marietta, and had invited about 50 family and friends to his first major-league game in Atlanta. Johnson said of his catcher, "I only shook him off two or three times. He called a great game." Center-fielder Steve Finley, who had been part of a no-hitter, along with Luis Gonzalez, when they were in Houston was amazed by Johnson's performance, saying "He was hitting the corners all night - but the problem for the hitters, was that most of those pitches came in there at 97, 98 and 99 mph." The Big Unit threw a total of 117 pitches, 87 for strikes, 26 of them swinging strikes.
The magnitude of Johnson's achievement, retiring ever batter for nine innings, can be gauged by the fact that only two other D-backs pitchers have ever had outings with more than three perfect innings. Max Scherzer's debut in 2008, resulted in 4.1 perfect frames, with seven strikeouts; and Leo Rosales retired all 10 batters he faced, in a June 2009 outing. RJ also got the final three hitters out in his previous appearance, as well as the first six in his next game, meaning he retired 36 consecutive batters. It's a streak, the likes of which we may not see again by a Diamondback, for a very long time.
Here is the final out, which MLB.com inexplicably insist can not be shared with you directly. Still, enjoy.
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