On a nightly basis, the game of baseball makes damn sure it proves to be one of extreme oddities.
On Friday night in Seattle, we saw Wade LeBlanc–a soft-tossing lefty who hadn't stood on a major league mound in almost two years–outduel the Cardinals' fireballing righty, Carlos Martinez, for six innings. A little more than 24 hours before that, we watched the same Mariners team lose on a walk-off wild pitch. Baseball is weird and hectic and an emotional rollercoaster, and those who gamble on it have to have a little bit of psychopath buried somewhere within them. But, of course, there is joy in these oddities.
When 23-year-old Osmer Morales took the mound for the Bakersfield Blaze on Friday, there wasn't any sort of special electricity in the air, no sign from the baseball gods that the night would be anything special. Morales hadn't started a game all season. His ERA was an abysmal 7.65. His name won't be found on any top prospect lists. His opponent, the Modesto Nuts, had posted 8 runs and 13 hits the night prior. The game had the feeling of a typical game of baseball: some runs would be scored for both sides, a team would win, and they'd all go home and try it again tomorrow.
Then baseball happened.
It wasn't particularly interesting when Morales struck out Omar Carrizales to start the game, and it still wasn't a huge deal when he struck out two more in a clean third inning. But then he struck out two more in the fourth and another two in the fifth with nothing more than a walk allowed and suddenly things were interesting. Osmer Morales was handing the ball off to the bullpen, and there was a no-no going.
Isaac Sanchez took over from there.
Sanchez, like Morales, is far from a top prospect in the system. He was signed by the Pirates back in 2010, but never managed to look particularly dominant at any level. Command issues plagued him and this past offseason he was handed over to the Mariners for free in the Rule 5 Draft.
Tonight, however, Sanchez had his command. He struck out his first batter, making Max White look at strikes two and three as they nestled themselves comfortably into the corners of the strike zone. He struck out the next batter. An inning later, he struck out a third hitter with a variety of pitches on the inside corner. A groundout to first ended his night, a perfect two-inning appearance. And there were the Blaze, a team whose pitching had consistently dug them massive holes in the first half of the season, just six outs away from a no-hitter.
Enter Jake Zokan.
Once upon a time, Zokan seemed to have neat potential as a reliever out of the College of Charleston. Things haven't worked out well for him, unfortunately. If you take a glance at his transaction history, you'll find the most common word amongst the blurbs is 'DL'. Trips in '14, '15, and '16 have set him back, and now he's a 25-year-old in High-A ball, just a tick under two years older than the average California League player. Things have been looking up for Zokan, however; he's yet to allow a run in 15.2 innings this season. He was, by all means, the most reliable man for the job.
The eighth inning started scary enough. A 2-2 pitch that caught too much of the plate was lined to first base for the first out, but things settled down from there. A strikeout and a groundout took the game to the bottom of the eighth.
(NOTE: One minor detail that is probably worth pointing out is that the Blaze hadn't scored a run yet up to this point. Realizing this may get in the way of a no-hitter [and the ensuing celebration], the offense went on a barrage of walks and singles to take a 3-0 lead. To the ninth we go.)
The scariest part of a potential no-hitter is literally any time a ball is put in play. A weak blooper dropping in front of a center fielder, a soft grounder sneaking into a hole, a ball thumping off of the bag or skipping off the lip of the infield, they're all terrifying possibilities with so much on the line. The BABIP Gods are terrible deities, ones of jokes and inconvenience. They will mess with you and they will make damn sure Marwin Gonzalez's stupid grounder evades the shorstop.
Zokan never gave them a chance.
He struck out Max White, getting the lefty to chase a pitch up out of the strike zone. He struck out Emerson Jimenez in a similar fashion. And then, with his 24th pitch of the night, he struck out Omar Carrizales, finishing off the first no-hitter at Sam Lynn Ballpark since 1991.
I don't know what the future holds for the baseball careers of Morales, Sanchez, and Zokan, but tonight it really doesn't matter. Tonight, they were untouchable. Tonight, they were three of the best darn pitchers on the planet.
Baseball is full of oddities and I will never stop loving it for that.
Blaze win 3-0! No-Hitter!— Mariners Minors (@MiLBMariners) June 25, 2016
Osmer Morales 5IP, 0H, 0R, BB, 7K
Isaac Sanchez 2IP, 0H, 0R, 3K
Jake Zokan 2IP, 0H, 0R, 4K, WIN
Thank you to Osmer Morales, Isaac Sanchez and Jake Zokan. What a feeling. Most fun I've had in a press box in a long time!— Dan Besbris (@DanBesbris) June 25, 2016
Best thing about Blaze no-hitter is that longtime scorer/two-time cancer survivor Tim Wheeler had never scored one. You rock, Wheels.— Zach Ewing (@zewing) June 25, 2016