Sunday marks the 27th anniversary of one of the greatest pitching performances in Texas Rangers history.
Growing up a Texas Rangers fan in the 80s and 90s, I’d grown accustomed to disappointment and letdowns. Numerous losing seasons and flat-out bad ballgames far outnumbered the winning ones with great performances. But in 1989, Texas went out and made one the first huge free agent signing in team history by grabbing Nolan Ryan.
Ryan’s outings became events in our house. Every time he took the mound, we knew he had a shot at tossing a no-hitter. We ignored the fact that he’d not thrown one since 1989 because he flirted with it a few times that first year with the Rangers. He lost two of them in the eighth inning and two more in the ninth and ended 1989 without one.
Fast forward to June 11, 1990. Texas had just taken two of three from the Angels in Anaheim and were beginning a three game set with the Oakland Athletics. But despite that, they were 24-33 and 15 games out of first place.
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But a 43 year-old from Alvin, Texas could still command the television airwaves at nine o’clock on a Monday night. He’d lost three straight starts before it and began the night with a 5.11 ERA. In fact, that same Oakland team had beaten him up 5-4 in Arlington just five nights before.
He later told interviewers after the game that he had back problems before the start. That’s right, he almost missed the game. Considering how often that happened in his career, it would have gone unnoticed and this night would have been a blip on the radar of another mediocre Rangers season.
But the flame-throwing righty went out there anyway and went straight to work. Thanks to a two-run shot from Julio Franco (another guy that played baseball forever), Ryan had a 2-0 lead before even stepping on the rubber. That likely went a long way to loosen up that back.
Ryan set a fierce tone, sending down Willie Randolph and Doug Jennings on strikes to end the first. After his catcher, John Russell, extended the Texas lead with a leadoff homer in the second, Ryan picked up where he left off. Oakland cleanup hitter Ron Hassey went back to the bench with nothing as Ryan’s third strikeout victim. Nolan then got back-to-back groundouts to end the second.
His first of two walks came in the third when he walked Oakland’s savvy shortstop, Walt Weiss. But he struck out Rickey Henderson to end the inning and had a no-hitter through three. Of course, that was a pretty normal occurrence in Ryan’s career so things didn’t seem to special at that point.
The game began to feel special in the bottom of the fifth inning. As Ryan sailed through the first four with five strikeouts, it honestly had felt like a pretty normal start for him. The Texas offense had gone quiet and the game moved quickly.
Franco hit his second two-run blast of the evening in the fifth, pushing Texas out front 5-0. But that still didn’t feel like enough against the defending champions.
Oakland would send Felix Jose, Dave Henderson and Jamie Quirk to the plate, their five, six and seven hitters. It took Ryan just twelve pitches to send the trio back to the dugout and just like that, Nolan had a no-hitter through five with eight strikeouts on his ledger.
He struck out one each in the sixth and seventh innings and history started to feel eminent. Dave Henderson drug out a ten pitch at bat but still went down for his second K of the game. Then, pinch hitter Carney Lansford duplicated Henderson’s effort on just three pitches for Ryan’s 13th strikeout of the ballgame. Weiss then grounded out and at roughly 11:15 PM Texas time, Nolan would carry yet another no-hit bid into the ninth.
After having already thrown 118 pitches in the first eight, Ryan would go back out to the center of the diamond with no hits and just two walks to his name. Ken Phelps would face him first as the pinch hitter for Mike Gallego.
On an interesting side note, I watched Phelps hit a home run to break up a no-hit bid just a month and a half prior that season. He did it as a pinch hitter for Gallego. This made me a nervous 11 year-old.
But this was Nolan Ryan on the mound and not Ken Holman. So four pitches later, Phelps went to the dugout as his 14th strikeout victim. Next, the speedy Rickey Henderson hit a soft grounder and shortstop Jeff Huson made an outstanding off-balance grab and throw to get out number two as I went into figurative cardiac arrest.
Yet the final out came almost nonchalantly as Willie Randolph popped a foul ball into right field. Oakland’s massive foul territory did them in and Ruben Sierra hauled in the ball for the final out.
Ryan became the oldest player in major league history to throw a no-hitter and despite finishing 20 games out of first, the Rangers had something to celebrate that year. He’d later get his 300th win the following month. Ryan’s legend grew and for one day, the Rangers fans felt like they sat on top of the world.