In the pantheon of bizarre-to-the-core Rangers games played over the years, last night's Minnesota-at-Texas tilt deserves a special place near the top. The Rangers lost what would have been their first no-hitter of any kind since Kenny Rogers' 1994 perfecto (and first combined no-hitter in franchise history), but several things of even greater rarity than a conventional nine-inning no-hitter transpired during Rich Harden's stunning (and abortive) no-hit bid, and they're not necessarily what you think they are, either.
For starters, Harden -- who strung together 6.2 no-hit frames while striking out six but, in his typically walk-inclined fashion, also handing out five free passes -- is categorically not the worst pitcher to ever mount a legitimate no-hit effort, but I'm going to wager that the list of pitchers who were in the midst of a replacement-level campaign at the time of their accomplishment (like Harden) is very, very small; about the only example I could dig up was former Cardinals right-hander Jose Jimenez, who recorded a no-hitter at Arizona on June 25th, 1999 after entering that evening's start with a 6.69 ERA, but his fielding-independent ERA at the time (4.40 FIP) was better than the league average and not remotely similar to to that of Harden's (6.47 FIP) going into last night.
[Before taking this any further, allow me to fly off on a quick tangent: How on earth was the Pitch f/x pitch-tracking system not working at the Ballpark last night? I've always wondered about the perfect storm of technical difficulties that knocks it out of commission, but it's doubly frustrating now; even if Harden and Co. had managed to nail down the complete no-hitter, there would be no way to statistically dissect their efforts on a micro pitch-by-pitch level, because the system was, for whatever reason, non-functional last night. Hell, there could have been a perfect game and we would have no such record of it. Very frustrating.]
Even more bizarre, however, were several other aspects of Harden's wild night; at 4.83 pitches per batter faced (111 pitches to 23 batters), Harden was several degrees more inefficient than any other pitcher to log at least 6.2 no-hit innings in a single start during the pitch count era (1988-present); the next closest are Jon Lester (05/19/08) and Nolan Ryan (06/11/90), both of whom used 4.48 pitches per batter faced in their respective no-hitters. And it turns out that sub-nine-inning no-hit starts are even more rare than conventional no-hitters themselves; only 16 other pitchers in major league history have logged at least 6.2 no-hit innings in a single start while failing to reach nine full innings.
David Cone posted one such start in September 1996, shortly before gifting the Rangers their first and only post-season victory to date: a seven-inning no-hit effort against the Athletics in which he threw just 85 pitches. It turns out that the reason for his seemingly premature departure was, as I suspected, health-related -- Cone had undergone shoulder surgery less than four months earlier to remove an aneurysm from beneath his right armpit, and then-Yankees manager Joe Torre adhered to his pre-game pledge to limit Cone to 100 pitches at most. Oddly, closer Mariano Rivera fell two outs short of completing what would have been a combined no-hitter when he yielded a one-out single in the ninth inning. Feeling an odd sense of deja vu, yet?
If not, here's the point of similarity: Neftali Feliz also blew his shot at completing a combined no-hitter with just two outs left, and also on a single, albeit one of the rocket line drive variety. No regrets; Joe Mauer's an incredible hitter, and it didn't remotely resemble a cheap hit. And no regrets about Harden's early exit, either. Sure, he might have pulled it off if he had been allotted 140-145 pitches, but that's just crossing into the realm of the irresponsible, and he was "effectively wild" -- the Twins were getting runners on base, and the score was close enough that it just didn't make sense to push Harden beyond his limits (and conceivably risk the lead) with a rested bullpen standing by.
I'm not going to call this a spectacular start from Harden, because the simple fact of the matter is that it wasn't; he did a good job of inducing weak contact on the whole, but five walks per seven innings will kill him sooner rather than later. It was, however, clearly enough to buy him at least 1-2 more starts, and speaking as someone who already had Harden's bags packed and halfway out the door about 12 hours ago, it's apparent now more than ever that nothing is ever a certainty in baseball. And that's just one of the many wonderful things about baseball that keeps bringing us back.