Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A Long String of Zero's

As Justin Verlander was mowing down Brewers last night, I sat in the left field stands and thought about every other Tigers game I've attended. There haven't been that many, probably seven or eight since I moved to Ann Arbor in 1993. On the drive to every game, I'd always think to myself what it would be like to see something truly special happen. A Tiger hit three home runs, maybe a walk-off homer, or...a no-hitter. That dream would always die sometime in the early innings, and I would move on to just hoping the home team would pull out a victory.

Yesterday, a few friends and I reached our seats in the home half of the second inning after being held up at home when one friend cancelled at the last minute and we tried to find someone to take our extra ticket (nobody did). The first thing I did was check the scoreboard, and was relieved to find that the Brewers had not mustered a hit yet. Neither had the Tigers, but I was pretty confident our offense wouldn't get shut out, let alone no-hit.

As the fourth inning rolled around, I could sense something special could happen. Verlander struck out the side that inning, three magnificent K's sandwiched around a walk to Bill Hall. Verlander already had seven strikeouts, and the game wasn't even halfway done. At this point, I'm starting to get a little excited. I tried to dismiss my thoughts of a no-hitter, caught up in the sports fan's fear of jinxing the game by thinking about it too much.

Verlander rolled out without incident until the seventh, when he had to leap to snag Prince Fielder's bouncer up the middle for the first out, and Magglio Ordonez made a sliding catch in left to rob Corey Hart of a hit for out number two. Verlander, perhaps sensing the impending heart failure of the 33,555 in attendance, temporarily calmed the collective nerves of Comerica Park by striking out Geoff Jenkins to escape the inning with no-hitter intact. In the bottom of the seventh, Detroit added their fourth run of the game, but at this point the Tiger bats were a complete afterthought. The dormant caterpillars in my stomach had metamorphosed into full-blown butterflies, and all I wanted to see was Verlander work his magic on the mound and put my mind (and guts) at ease.

After Johnny Estrada grounded out to begin the eighth, Verlander once again walked Hall. What happened next caused me to utter a phrase that I had sworn would never come out of my mouth. On a 1-0 count, Gabe Gross hit a sharp grounder to the left of the second base bag that looked destined for the center field grass (at least in my paranoid mind). Neifi Perez, aka Neifi 'effin Perez, he of the .180 batting average, backhanded the ball with his back to second before flipping the ball behind him to Placido Polanco, who turned the beautiful double play with a perfect strike to Sean Casey. I yelled "I love you Neifi!" at the top of lungs while high-fiving friends and strangers with reckless abandon. No-hitters do funny things to people.

I don't really remember the bottom of the eighth, except that by that time the adrenaline coursing through my veins was enough to cause my hands and legs to shake uncontrollably. All I could think was "I can't believe this is happening." Well, that and "if they get a hit, I may break down and cry." As the crowd rose as one when Verlander strolled out to the mound to start the ninth, I felt like I was standing on Jell-O. Verlander quickly took Craig Counsell to a 1-2 count before dropping a nasty curve off the table. Counsell could only muster a meager half-swing before making his way back to the dugout. One out, two to go. Next up was Tony Graffanino, who had already struck out three times on the night. Three curveballs, three strikes. As the crowd roared, my mind quickly raced to last Thursday, when I sat in Buffalo Wild Wings and witnessed Curt Schilling lose his no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth. More shaking ensued.

J.J. Hardy stepped into the batters box. I guess Justin's adrenaline was flowing even more than mine was, because his first pitch rocketed through the strike zone at a mind-boggling 102 miles per hour. Hardy fouled off Verlander's second offering, a 99 mph fastball up and in, causing my heart to skip a beat at the sound of bat meeting ball. One more strike. Hardy fouled away a high curve, and Verlander stepped off the mound to regain his composure. Verlander stepped back in, the roar of the crowd at a deafening level, and unleashed another high curve. Hardy made contact, and the ball arced towards the right field fence, forcing Magglio into a hasty retreat. Just as I was about to lose hope, Magglio settled just in front of the warning track and the ball dropped harmlessly into his glove.

Chaos ensued as the Tiger dugout emptied onto the field, engulfing Verlander in a jubilant celebration in front of the mound as Comerica Park erupted in cheers. Words cannot describe the feelings of relief and excitement that came over me as we stood and saluted the greatest baseball performance I've ever had the privilege of seeing in person. After cheering Verlander for several minutes from our seats, we rushed down to the Tiger store at the front entrance. I had to get something to mark the occasion. As I type this right now, I am sitting in my Justin Verlander t-shirt, the last of its size (medium, as if you care) in all of Comerica Park.

From our vantage point (upper deck seats deep in foul territory down the left field line) it was tough to see exactly how Justin was striking out all these Brewers. All we could see was the radar gun and the befuddled reactions of the batters as they walked dejectedly back to the dugout. The highlights on Sportscenter confirmed what we could all tell from the upper deck: Verlander was beyond dominant. His electric fastball and vicious curve were unhittable, literally.

I can't begin to describe how lucky I feel to have seen this game. I've been to a decent amount of sporting events in my young life, including a lot of big Michigan football games, and nothing touched the electricity of Comerica Park last night. As a fan watching the game, you really feel as if you were a part of something special. I know this sounds ridiculous, at least to anyone who doesn't follow sports, but last night was one of the best nights of my life. Who knows, at 24 years old, Justin Verlander may even have a couple more left in him. After last night, I'll believe anything now.

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