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NPB may not have seen last no-no

by Jason Coskrey

Japanese baseball went five full seasons without a no-hitter until the Hiroshima Carp’s Kenta Maeda threw one against the Yokohama BayStars April 6.

Fifty-four days later, Yomiuri Giants lefty Toshiya Sugiuchi no-hit the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

It’s enough to make you wonder if 2012 will go down as the year of the no-hitter.

Given the way pitchers dominated last season, and how the first few weeks of this year have progressed, it seems possible.

Thirteen pitchers currently have an ERA under 2.00, and two (Sugiuchi and Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s Mitsuo Yoshikawa) are below 1.10. With a ball that doesn’t fly keeping more deep drives in the field of play, and a strike zone that, even in the best of times, can sometimes border on the wide side, conditions are ripe for someone to match Maeda and Sugiuchi.

There have been a couple of near-misses already.

Tokyo Yakult’s Masanori Ishikawa carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning on Opening Night, the same night Chunichi ace Kazuki Yoshimi took a perfect game into the eighth, while BayStars veteran Daisuke Miura lost a no-hitter in the ninth on May 12.

There is even a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-esque NPB tie to a no-hitter in the U.S., where former Orix Buffaloes manager Terry Collins, now the New York Mets’ skipper, struggled with the decision of whether or not to keep Johan Santana on the mound for what would become the first no-no in the 50-year history of the Mets.

Should someone else (in Japan) break through before the end of the year, it would mark the first time since 1995 there were three no-hitters in one season. The most in a single season is five, which occurred in 1940.

This season is the first since 1976 to have a pair of no-hitters thrown before June. There were also two by this time in 1966 (which has three overall). Those were perfect games by Kichiro Sasaki of the Taiyo Whales on May 1, and the Nishitetsu Lions’ Tsutomu Tanaka on May 12, representing the only time in Japanese baseball two perfect games occurred in the same season.

Perfection is something NPB fans haven’t seen in nearly two decades. Former Giant Hiromi Makihara was the last to toss a perfect game, doing so on May 18, 1994 at Fukuoka Dome.

Prior to Japanese baseball’s current perfect game-drought of 18 — and counting — years, the nearly 16-year gap between the perfect game thrown by the Hankyu Braves’ Yutaro Imai on Aug. 31, 1978 against the Lotte Orions at Miyagi Stadium and Makihara’s gem in ’94 was the longest gap between perfect games in history.

Sugiuchi was tantalizingly close to ending the drought when he threw his no-hitter. He retired the first 26 batters with relative ease, striking out 13 in 8⅔ innings, to bring pinch hitter Toshiya Nakashima to the plate.

Sugiuchi worked the count to 1-2 in his favor to move within a strike of perfection. His next offering was a borderline pitch that was ruled a ball, and he later walked the batter.

Who knows, maybe someone else, or Sugiuchi, will be able to toss Japan’s 16th perfect game.

Sugiuchi still ended up with a no-hitter, so he was able to take his brush with perfection in stride.

“The thing is, if the ump calls ball, it is a ball,” Sugiuchi said afterward. “If he calls strike, it’s a strike. So I don’t worry about that.”