Unlike Larsen, Halladay's gem was no fluke
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Roy Halladay just joined the most exclusive group in baseball history. Prior to Wednesday night, there had been 220 postseason series played in baseball history since the creation of the World Series in 1903. If those Series averaged five games each, that meant that more than a thousand postseason games had been played and that on more than two-thousand occasions a pitcher started a postseason game with the chance to throw a no-hitter. Yet in all of those games, from among all of those pitchers, a group including most of the games greatest, only one had actually held his opponent hitless for nine innings: Don Larsen, who did so in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. Wednesday night, Halladay joined him.
The significance of Halladay's feat is staggering. No-hitters happen all the time, nearly every year, in fact. There have been 269 in major league history, five of them coming during the 2010 regular season, but until Wednesday night, there had been just one in the postseason. I've written before about how no-hitters are largely random events that don't actually tell us much about the pitcher who threw it or the team that it was thrown against. There's no better example of that than Larsen, a journeyman right-hander who pitched for eight teams, posted an ERA a tick below league average over the course of his career, didn't have particularly impressive stuff, and would have been utterly without distinction in the history of major league baseball had it not been for that one afternoon in the Bronx.
Still, it seemed significant that Larsen was the only one who had ever thrown a no-hitter in the postseason. The belief seemed to be that, once you boil the field down to the best teams in the majors, the talent level is simply too high, the teams too good, the lineups too strong. That made Larsen's perfect game even more amazing, that this nobody junkballer came out of nowhere, not even knowing he was going to start that day until he found a ball placed in his shoe by his manager, Casey Stengel, and for one afternoon was perfect against the mighty Brooklyn Dodgers. That it was Larsen who did it, and that he was perfect, made it seem all the more impossible than anyone else would. (Larsen still holds the distinction of being the only man ever to throw a perfect game in the postseason thanks to Reds right fielder Jay Bruce, who drew a full-count walk in the fifth inning of Wednesday night's game, the only blemish on Halladay's otherwise spotless night). Larsen's game didn't seem to have been pitched but rather handed down intact by the baseball gods. If it never happened again, no one would have been shocked.
Enter Halladay. This was not a fluke. In fact, it wasn't even Halladay's first no-hitter this season. He was perfect against the Marlins back on May 29. Perfect games are among the rarest feats in baseball. Halladay's was just the 20th dating back to the 19th century. Throwing two no-hitters of any kind in one season is even rarer. Halladay is just the fifth man to do that, the last being Nolan Ryan in 1973. Throwing a no-hitter in the postseason, however, is the rarest feat in the game, and Halladay did it not because the stars happened to align Wednesday night, but because he's that good.
As I wrote in my preview of the Phillies-Reds series on Tuesday, Halladay has arguably been the best pitcher in baseball over the last three seasons as he leads all qualified starters over that span in innings, ERA, ERA+, WHIP, K/BB, BB/9, wins, complete games, and shutouts. That last is particularly relevant here. Halladay hadn't thrown a no-hitter prior to this season, but he comes close all the time. Just looking at his game logs for this season, in addition to his perfect game and Wednesday night's no-no, he shut out the Mets on three hits on May 1 in his final regular season start shut out the Nationals on two safeties. Incidentally, that means in his last two starts Halladay has allowed three baserunners, two on singles and one via a walk, in 18 scoreless innings. Halladay wouldn't be much less like Larsen if he was a left-hander from the Dominican Republic, yet here they are, forever bound by a common accomplishment.
Another compelling aspect of the Larsen and Halladay games is that both no-hitters came against good-to-great-hitting teams. The Brooklyn Dodgers of 1950s boasted one of the great lineups of all time. There were four Hall of Famers in the lineup that Larsen no-hit -- Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Pee Wee Reese, and slugging first baseman Gil Hodges holds the record for getting the highest percentage of the baseball writers' Hall of Fame vote without ultimately being inducted. By 1956 that lineup bad begun to age a bit. Reese and Robinson were 37, and Campanella was 34, which is old for a catcher. After scoring five or more runs per game in each of the previous seven seasons, they slipped to 4.68 runs per game in 1956, though that was still good for second place in the senior circuit. The 2010 Reds did lead the NL in runs scored. They also led the league in batting average, literally the measure of how often they got hits, by a considerable margin over the second-place Cardinals (.272 to .263). The 1956 Dodgers hit just .258. If Larsen was the less likely no-hit author, the 2010 Reds were actually the less likely no-hit victim.
Still, despite the conventional wisdom, the history of the major league postseason is littered with weak-hitting teams. Most famously, the 1906 World Champion Chicago White Sox were dubbed the "hitless wonders" after hitting a league-worst .230 as a team and scoring just 3.68 runs per game. That a deadball offense such as that was never no-hit by Christy Matthewson, or Cy Young, or Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown, or any of the other pitching legends of the time is part of what lent the Larsen game such mystique.
The decade following Larson's game saw pitchers dominate unlike any other time since the deadball era. In the 1966 World Series, the Dodgers scored just two runs while being swept by the Orioles in four games, hitting .142 as a team. Yet, Sandy Koufax, author of four regular season no-hitters who shut out the Twins on seven total hits in consecutive starts in the 1965 World Series, never threw a postseason no-hitter. Nor did Bob Gibson or Mickey Lolich or Whitey Ford, any of that era's great postseason pitchers. But Halladay, in what despite this year's offensive slowdown is still a hitting-friendly era, in a hitter's park, against a strong hitting team, did.
Maybe he wasn't perfect (though he was incredibly close), and maybe it came in the division series rather that in the World Series (though he was facing the best offense among the other three NL teams), but who cares? Halladay just threw the second no-hitter in postseason history.
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