Last night, Michael Wacha, the next in a line of impossibly talented young Cardinals pitchers -- they actually have a stash of them out at Grant's Farm, in an orchard guarded by Clydesdales -- came within one out of the 11th no-hitter in St. Louis Cardinals history, and only the third in 30 years. By now, you've all seen the play that cost him immortality, Ryan Zimmerman's single.
As with all no-hit bids, I found myself shutting up so as not to jinx it. But as with all Cardinals no-hit bids … I also found myself, secretly, deep down, sorta cheering against Wacha. Every time a Cardinals pitcher flirts with a no-hitter, I think of Bud Smith.
Bud Smith, a pitcher you've likely never heard of, is known by Cardinals fans for three things:
1. He is the only player since the beloved Willie McGee retired to wear Willie's No. 51. He wore it for one inning, in 2001, and fans were so furious he was switched to 52 the next game, and for the rest of his Cardinals career.
2. He was traded along with Placido Polanco and Mike Timlin to the Philadelphia Phillies for Scott Rolen, part of the famous "MV3" of Pujols/Edmonds/Rolen on the 2004 Cardinals team, the best Cardinals team of my lifetime.
3. He threw the last Cardinals no-hitter, on Sept. 3, 2001.
In the wake of Wacha's game last night, Bud Smith's name is all over the news this morning. The last time anyone heard from Bud was July 2010, when Fox Sports Midwest caught up with him. He was coaching baseball at the high school where he played baseball, which, while surely noble and gratifying for those kids, is a little more Wooderson than you'd like from your no-hit heroes.
The thing about Bud Smith is that everyone sort of knew the Cardinals were ruining him that night, while his no-hitter was going on. That game, on the night of Labor Day, was only Smith's 13th game in the majors and his 11th as a starter. (It was also one of the few games with both Albert Pujols and Mark McGwire in the starting lineup; 2001 was both Pujols' first season and McGwire's injury-riddled last one.) The Cardinals were still reeling from the implosion of Rick Ankiel, a phenom left-handed starter that manager Tony La Russa had blamed himself for working too hard. And now, out of nowhere, they were handed another one. We didn't want to break this one.
Smith wasn't similar to Ankiel in any way other than his youth and his left-handedness -- he threw about 15 mph slower, for one thing -- but his results for most of the season were similar. After his first six starts, he had a 2.89 ERA and had firmly entrenched himself in the rotation, but he had struggled in his last three starts before that Labor Day, including being rocked for 7 runs in 3 1/3 innings in his previous start, also against the Padres. (The Cardinals won that game 16-14, if you want some fun box score porn.) In the wake of Ankiel, Smith felt like a precious, rare, delicate antique; you feared every pitch would end in a shatter.
And then he started shutting down Padres. A walk in the 2nd, walks in the 3rd and the 6th (both to Rickey Henderson!), and that was it. But you couldn't help notice how many pitches he was throwing, even in an age before pitch counting became a fetish. After six innings: 91. After seven innings: 103. After eight: 111. After the game, pitching coach Dave Duncan admitted that he secretly, deep down, was hoping Smith would give up a hit. It was a tough call. On one hand, you have this precious young pitcher, whom you want to protect, not just for his future but for the playoffs you're about to play in. On the other hand: no-hitter! In his column for Baseball Prospectus at the time, Joe Sheehan explained it well:
I can't criticize La Russa for allowing Smith to complete the game, and I would not criticize him had he elected to remove Smith at some point. I'm actually pretty sure La Russa would have removed Smith had he failed to retire Ryan Klesko with one out in the ninth, as much over concern about losing the game as to protect Smith's arm. It was a tough situation for La Russa, and a good reminder that not every decision has clear right and wrong sides.
I thought the no-hitter was done when Tony Gwynn came into pinch-hit in the 8th, but he grounded out. I thought Ryan Klesko was going to end it in the 9th. I even thought Phil Nevin, the last batter, would finish off an obviously gassed Smith. But Smith somehow got Nevin to ground back to him, and then it was over. It was as unlikely a no-hitter from as unlikely a guy as you could imagine. The Cardinals are still waiting for their next one.
And as for Smith … that was it. He pitched well in his next two games -- he ended up having a full two weeks off in between starts because of what would happen eight days later -- and even earned a win in Game 4 of the NLDS against Arizona, a terrific series from that year that no one remembers anymore. He was in the rotation the next season but had a 9.72 ERA after four starts and was sent to the minors. He returned in July but never got it together, and in his final game in the big leagues, he gave up eight runs to the Pirates in 4 2/3 innings. A week later, the Cardinals traded him to Phillies, but he was already hurt, and afraid to say anything about it to his new team. He never made it to the bigs again, and he retired in 2007. You can't say those 134 pitches ruined him. But you can't say they helped.
Michael Wacha has better stuff than Bud Smith ever did. He throws 10 mph faster and has a devastating Bugs Bunny changeup. The game is different than it was in 2001; Wacha never has to worry about being "afraid" to tell his team if his arm hurts. The circumstances aren't the same at all. But I'll still never see a Cardinals no-hitter without thinking of Bud Smith and what happened to him. I'll take the one-hitter, and the rest of Michael Wacha's career, thank you.