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      F I E L D  T R I P S

SEPTEMBER 29, 2003

September 26, 2003: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium
A Nightcap to Remember

On this Friday night, the Yanks had already played the Orioles at the front end of a doubleheader (the makeup game for that ridiculous Hurricane Isabel affair which culminated in an abbreviated tie) and won 11-2, so Joe Torre chose the nightcap to spotlight his September callups. The Columbus Clipper connection included starting pitcher Jorge DePaula, catcher Michel Hernandez, first baseman Fernando Seguignol (the 2003 International League MVP), shortstop Erick Almonte and third baseman/quarterback-to-be Drew Henson. Playing second base and making his 2003 debut as a Yankee was Luis Sojo, possibly the first player to participate in a team's Old-Timer's Day game and an official game in the same season. Hell, Sojo had actually managed DePaula and Almone at Norwich last season. Only DH Jason Giambi and rightfielder Ruben Sierra represented the Yankee regulars.

Due to a scheduling mixup, my girlfriend and I arrived late at the ballgame, finding that Sierra had put the Yanks up 2-0 with a first-inning home run. But that quickly became a sidelight to what we were about to witness. As I scrambled to catch up on my scorecard, I realized that with seventh batter Deivi Cruz leading off the third and a zero in the hits column, DePaula had been perfect through two innings. When he put the O's down 1-2-3 in the third, my butterflies kicked in.

I have been to a handful short of a hundred professional ballgames in my lifetime, from A ball in Walla Walla to the deciding game of a World Series at Yankee Stadium, and I have never seen a no-hitter in person (TV is another story). Three sorta-close calls stand out. A few months after he pitched his perfect game in '98, I saw David Wells take another perfect line into the seventh against the Oakland A's. It was broken up by a blooper to right by Jason Giambi, to whom Boomer gestured thanks immediately afterwards. Once in a season was enough excitement for a man of his carriage, apparently. Two years later, Bartolo Colon, pitching for the Cleveland Indians, a took a no-no into the eighth against the Yanks. I'd just about reached the tipping point in my day's rooting allegiance — I'd have given it up for Colon in the ninth, but Luis Polonia beat me to the punch with a one-out single. At a Brooklyn Cyclones game a couple of summers ago, I watched two A-ball teams slash away in hopes of getting an official game played before a torrential rainstorm hit. Cyclones starter Jason Scobie took a no-hitter into the seventh before it was broken up, and shortly after that an ominous-looking black sky broke open, washing the rest of the game away.

That's as close as I've gotten in person, unless one counts showing up at a ballpark fifteen hours after one's been thrown. But anytime I see three no-hit innings on the board, I begin taking inventory: oxygen mask, check; defibrillator, check.

With the tantalizing possibility of a no-hitter growing ever more apparent to the crowd of 45,000+, the next three innings breezed by, with neither team getting a hit. The Yanks kept popping up on the first or second pitch against Rodrigio Lopez, who got through the third inning in five pitches, the fourth in ten, the fifth in six. Meanwhile, DePaula continued slicing through the Baltimore lineup like a hot knife through butter. The O's were hacking; every batter seemed to be hitting out of an 0-2 hole. It wasn't as though Baltimore had matched the Yanks by fielding AAA ballplayers — most of their frontliners, with the exception of injured Melvin Mora, were in the lineup. The kid DePaula was looking mighty impressive in his first major-league start.

The tension continued to build. With two outs in the fifth, DePaula fell behind 3-0 to B.J. Surhoff. He came back to 3-2 before Surhoff hit a long fly ball to rightfield that looked like trouble. But a hustling Sierra caught the ball while backing into the wall. The crowd erupted, but except for one loudmouth, nobody within earshot used the words "perfect" or "no-hitter." Andra (my gal) needed no explanation as to what was going on; she was as cool as a little Fonzie when it came to the superstitions surrounding such affairs.

With one out in the sixth, pudgy DH Jack Cust worked a walk off of DePaula as the crowd groaned, its shot at perfection gone. But the young Yankee hurler recovered, striking out catcher Geronimo Gil looking and then retiring Jerry Hairston Jr. on a fly ball. Still no hits.

Luis Matos struck out to start the seventh, DePaula's sixth K on the night. He came within a strike of victim number seven, Larry Bigbie. But the Oriole leftfielder instead lashed a ball up the middle that glanced off of DePaula's glove and eluded second baseman Sojo, ending the no-hit bid. Joe Torre was instantly out of the dugout and on the mound, calling to the bullpen. Torre later explained that he wouldn't have let DePaula complete the game given how long the rookie had been idle. But that wasn't known at the time — all the crowd knew was that despite the makeshift lineup, this kid had given them a thrill, and so they gave one back in the form of a raucous standing ovation.

After things calmed down, lefty Gabe White got the Yanks out of trouble with two ground balls to end the seventh seemed to cruise as he retired the first two batters in the eighth. But Cust, the pest, singled, and Jeff Nelson came on in relief to face pinch-hitter Pedro Swann. As has been all too common, Nelson couldn't find the plate too well, and he walked Swann on a 3-2 pitch. He fell behind Hairston, who hit one to deep right-center, where "centerfielder" Karim Garcia took forever to get to the ball, apparently stopping to ask directions from an usher. By the time Garcia relayed the ball to Seguignol, both runs had scored and Hairston had rounded third, trying for an inside-the-park home run. Seguignol's relay to Hernandez had Hairston by 10 feet, and when the little punk tried to run through the Buddha-bellied catcher, he was flicked away like an insect. Still, Nelson had surrendered the tying run, depriving DePaula of a victory.

Hernandez got his own milestone in the bottom of the eighth, strokign a single to right for his first major-league hit, then yielding to pinch-runner Alfonso Soriano. Almonte sacrificed him to second, but the Yanks couldn't convert. They threatened again in the ninth, with pinch-hitter Bernie Williams pounding a leadoff double. Seguignol, the next hitter, tapped one back to pitcher B.J. Ryan, whose throw to first was bobbled by Surhoff. First base ump Ed Montague called Seguignol out, blowing the call as the crowd howled. But after a visit from Torre, home plate ump Brian Gorman overruled Montague, and Seguignol took first. One out and a new pitcher later, a Juan Rivera grounder confused shortstop Deivi Cruz, as Williams staying put long enough to prevent Cruz from turning two, then advanced to third. Nick Johnson pinch-hit for Henson, but flew out to end the inning.

Facing Chris Hammond, Surhoff led off the tenth with a grounder that Almonte couldn't stop and reached on the error — but at a price. Surhoff apparently pulled a groin muscle in the process and he was escorted off by the Oriole trainer, yielding to pinch-runner Jose Morban. After a sacrifice, Tim Raines Jr. walked, and then catcher Robert Machado slapped a grounder to left, scoring the go-ahead run.

The Yanks threatened again in the tenth. John Flaherty led off with a single and one out later, took third on an Enrique Wilson single. But Oriole closer Jorge Julio struck out both Sierra and Williams to preserve the 3-2 victory. Still, given that the division had already been clinched and that the crowd had been treated to a special performance, this was one loss that hardly hurt at all.

Final Score: Orioles 3, Yanks 2: Six and one-third innings of perfection, two late arrivals, one huge, thrill-of-a-lifetime ovation, one Luis Sojo sighting, and one not-so-painful extra-inning loss. BOX SCORE