And with a happy 2014 to you, it’s time to continue with our countdown of the very best moments of 2013.
Part One is here.
6. More Wonderful, Wacky No-Hitters
While some may argue that today’s new pitching dominated game, one that has seen a sharp uptick in no-hitters compared to a decade ago, makes each occurrence less special, I disagree. Because what makes a no-hitter special isn’t just the sheer dominance of the pitcher throwing it, but the bizarre and random occurrence of luck that must shine down, ensuring that every ball harmlessly finds a glove or spot in foul territory.
And 2013’s no-hitters were plenty unique.
They started off in July with Homer Bailey tossing his second no-hitter, it being the first across the league since Bailey’s no-hitter in September of 2012. The last pitcher to do that? Nolan Ryan in 1973.
Eleven days later, Tim Lincecum, who sadly has the second highest ERA in the last two seasons, threw his first no-hitter, needing 148 pitches to defeat the Padres thanks to four walks and thirteen strikeouts.
While Lincecum will only be 30 years old next season, perhaps because of his size, his motion, or simply the entropic heat death of pitchers, Lincecum’s no-hitter may, sadly, be the last high point of his career. But then again, maybe (hopefully) not.
But the weirdest, wildest no-hitter came on the last day of the season when sinkerballing Henderson Alvarez faced the Detroit Tigers. Alvarez made only 17 starts last year, striking out a minuscule 5 batters per nine innings, but with the Tigers trotting out what amounted to a split squad roster, Alvarez was able to mow them down, walking only one batter in his nine innings of work.
But when Alvarez walked back to the dugout for the bottom of the ninth, the game was still tied 0-0, Alvarez preparing to go back onto the mound for the tenth inning, hoping to eek out one more inning of perfection.
It never came to that.
Instead, with the bases loaded and two outs, Luke Putkonen uncorked a wild pitch, allowing Giancarlo Stanton to race home and win the game, giving Alvarez the victory, preventing him from being another footnote in the record books, and making for quite a satisfying end to the regular season.
5. Clayton Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw may not have thrown a no-hitter, but he basically did everything else. For the third straight season, the 25-year-old Kershaw lead the league in ERA, picking up his second Cy Young Award along the way thanks to a 16-9 record, 1.83 ERA, and a league leading 232 strikeouts in 236 innings pitched.
But Kershaw’s greatest talent lies not in his low 90s fastball, killer hook of a curve, or darting slider, it’s that he has all of these things and is only 25 years old.
In only six seasons, Kershaw has gone 77-46 with a 2.60 ERA, never posting an ERA above 2.91 in any of his full seasons. In 1,180 innings, he’s struck out 1,260 batters.
Among all pitchers 25 years or younger with at least 900 innings, Kershaw has the fifth best ERA+ behind Walter Johnson, Ed Reulbach, Smoky Joe Wood, and Christy Mathewson. If you haven’t realized it, most of those pitchers didn’t really pitch in today’s era. They’re also, save for Reulbach, Hall of Famers. (EDIT: Smoky Joe Wood, somehow, is not.)
Kershaw is one of only four pitchers with more than 1,200 strikeouts through his age 25 season.
Oh yeah, and through Sandy Koufax’s age 25 season? Koufax was only 54-53 with a 3.94 ERA and 954 strikeouts.
While pitchers can, and will, fall apart for almost any reason, Kershaw is among the likeliest of future Hall of Famers and, with another year or two like 2013’s, could give Koufax a run for “Greatest Dodger pitcher of all-time.” Even typing that sounds like sacrilege.
The Dodgers are lucky. And we’re very lucky that we’ve been able to watch him ever since Vin Scully called his curveball “Public Enemy Number One,” in March of 2008.
Two thumbs up, indeed.
4. All Those Young Pitchers
If 2012 was the year of rookie batters, with Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado all making their debut, 2013 belonged to the pitchers.
Shelby Miller arrived in St. Louis, posting a 3.06 ERA, striking out 8.8 batters per nine innings along the way. And when Miller got tired at the end of the year, Michael Wacha was there, less than a year removed from being drafted, posting a 2.78 ERA in 64.2 IP, nearly no-hitting the Nationals at the end of the year, and then almost doing it again against the Pirates in the postseason.
Let’s also not forget Chris Archer, Zack Wheeler, Julio Teheran, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, either.
And, well, then there’s Matt Harvey, who, even though he wasn’t technically a rookie, must be included. In a year without much to talk about for the Mets, Harvey gave the people of Queens something to talk about beyond Mike Baxter, shutting down the opposition every time out.
The Dark Knight of Gotham went 9-5 with a 2.27 ERA, walking only 1.6 per nine innings while striking out 9.6, topping 10 in a game six times. He even got to pose nude, becoming the first Met to do so since Dwight Gooden released his “Dwight Nooden: The Doc Gooden Nude Calendar.”
Sadly, Harvey’s year ended with an elbow injury, offseason surgery, and a terrible appearance on the Dan Patrick Show in which he proved he’s not adept at pitching everything.
Even among all those pitchers, one topped them all: Jose Fernandez.
Fernandez, only twenty years old and without a day of AA experience, was called up by the Marlins, at the time looking a lot like a PR stunt after the Marlins seemingly traded their entire roster away.
Fernandez, with a mid-90s fastball, sliced through opposition with ease, going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA, 9.7 K/9, and a league-low 5.8 H/9. The only pitcher with a lower ERA? Why, Clayton Kershaw, of course.
But Fernandez’s story is so much more than just a good rookie season. Born in Cuba, Fernandez tried to escape the island three times while a teenager, spending time in a Cuban prison and having to leap into the ocean to save his mother from drowning before ever making it to the United States.
But Fernandez also had to leave his grandmother behind, a woman who he credits as the “baseball freak” of the family.
In the most heart-warming moment of the year, during an interview in which Fernandez says he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to see his grandmother, Jeffrey Loria leads her out.
The two embrace, Fernandez stunned into silence. It’s one of the few things I guarantee no human being can watch without tears filling their eyes.
3. Mariano Rivera Rides Off Into the Sunset
After injuring his leg while shagging flies last year, there was a fear that we would never see Rivera on a baseball field again, that he would just pack up his things and go. And when Rivera announced that he was returning for one final year, we worried if, at the age of 43, and after nearly a full missed season, he would still be the same pitcher that we had grown accustomed to.
We should have known that would never happen. Because Rivera is a baseball robot. And possibly the Highlander.
Once again relying solely on that cutter (which begs the question, why didn’t Rivera enter to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Cutter” instead of “Enter Sandman”?), Rivera simply pitched like he always did, posting a 2.11 ERA and saving 44 games. Rivera’s average year since taking over as closer? 2.02 ERA and 38 saves. That’s absurd. Closers are supposed to be fungible!
At the All-Star game, Rivera entered, the field completely empty as both rosters stood in their dugouts and gave him a standing ovation. For a man who has made a career out of embarrassing the opposition, you couldn’t have blamed the players if they preferred to instead pelt him with oranges and tomatoes like they were in an old vaudeville theatre.
And then, at the end of the year, Rivera was serenaded off the field to the soothing sounds of Metallica in “baseball” jerseys.
Nothing says Rock ‘n Roll like pinstripes.
Sadly, we were robbed of one of the greatest, most face melting moments possible when Rivera injured himself before the end of the season, preventing manager Joe Girardi from playing him in the outfield against the Astros. That would have been the perfect capstone to a career that almost wasn’t and will likely never be again.
2. The Pirates Win Baseball Games, Go to the Playoffs
1992. That was the last time the Pirates were in the playoffs and won 81 games. That’s a long time ago. Bryce Harper wasn’t even born yet. Prodigy Online, much less AOL, didn’t even exist.
We’re talking about the deep past.
In that time, the Pirates had bad trades, bad drafts, bad GMs, bad luck, and bad seafood, somehow not even lucking into an 82 win season. Finally, in 2013, with a farm system humming and everything breaking the right way, the team went to the playoffs, becoming America’s lovable underdogs along the way.
Pedro Alvarez, despite often swinging at pitches roughly 30 feet out of the strike zone, tied for the NL lead in home runs and carefully trimmed beards.
Francisco Liriano, after spending years lost to the wilderness, went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA, defeating the Cincinnati Reds in the must-win Wild Card play-in game.
Gerrit Cole, finally breaking the string of disappointing Pirates pitching prospects, morphed into a staff ace. And also picked his nose.
It was a season that everyone could get behind, mostly because the Bucs hadn’t been a threat in a generation, so no fans had any bad blood. It’s like when you lose to your grandmother in Scrabble, you accept it because you could easily beat her in a one-on-one basketball game.
The year of magic ended prematurely though, the Cardinals bouncing the team in Game 5 of the NLDS. Leading to this:
But hey, that guy was usually looking that way by mid-August at the latest, so 2013 was a definite improvement.
1. Boston Strong
In another year, this would be a story of a worst-to-first team, transforming from an absolute mess of a season into a World Series winner.
Or it would be a story about David Ortiz proving that, at the age of 37, he could still crush the ball, hitting 30 home runs during the regular season with another five coming in the postseason. That includes a grand slam against the Tigers in the ALCS, bringing the Red Sox back from what appeared to be certain destruction, and leading to every Boston sports fan hanging this in their dens:
(Stan Grossfeld/Boston Globe Staff)
Or it would have been a story about beards, those fuzzy creatures that took over the Red Sox’s minds and lead the team to victory.
But it’s none of those things. Instead, the story is a story about why communities still identify with a group of millionaires that don’t even come from their hometown.
On April 15th, two pressure cooker bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring more than 260 others. It was a senseless tragedy on a day where the entire city of Boston shuts down, people spending time with friends and family to watch the race and relax.
While the city of Boston is strong and would bounce back regardless of what the Red Sox did or said, David Ortiz provided a rallying cry when he walked onto the field and announced, “This is our fucking city.”
It was short, it was poetic, and it was exactly what the people needed to hear.
The Red Sox, long the representation of New England, were now a symbol for the tenacity of the Boston spirit, a Boston jersey with the area code of 617 hanging in their dugout throughout the season.
Baseball teams, even as they become more and more like big businesses, are still central landmarks in their cities and a reflection of their communities. Instead of just being a group of multi-millionaires playing a game, the Red Sox were a symbol of strength for the people of Boston and something familiar to turn to during a difficult time.
And that, by itself, is something remarkable.
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