Rash of MLB no-hitters recalls NPB gems from past

by Wayne Graczyk

Much has been reported and written about the year of the no-hitter in Major League Baseball this season, with no less than five thrown in the American and National Leagues in 2010.

Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Matt Garza tossed the fifth one on July 26, and there should have been six, but umpire Jim Joyce’s missed call cost Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers not only a no-hitter, but also a perfect game, on June 2.

So far, at least through games of Thursday, no pitcher has tossed a no-hitter in Japanese baseball this year, and the last regular season no-hitter was thrown almost four years ago on Sept. 16, 2006, by veteran lefty Masahiro Yamamoto of the Chunichi Dragons over the Hanshin Tigers at Nagoya Dome.

Yamamoto, winning 3-0, became the oldest pitcher in Japan (41 years, 1 month) to complete a no-hitter.

History, however, has recorded several of them throughout the years here, including some strange ones and no-hitters by foreigners as well.

Eiji Sawamura, for whom the NPB best pitcher award is named, threw the first no-hitter in Japanese baseball on Sept. 25, 1936. Pitching for the Tokyo Kyojin, forerunner of the Yomiuri Giants, he blanked the Osaka Tigers 1-0 at Koshien Stadium. Sawamura would go on to fling two more no-hitters.

Yomiuri ace Tsuneo Horiuchi had one of the most memorable games in baseball anywhere when he pitched a no-hitter against the Hiroshima Carp at Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo on Oct. 10, 1967. In defeating the Carp 11-0, Horiuchi also starred offensively, hitting three home runs to help his own cause.

Hanshin lefty Yutaka Enatsu may have done Horiuchi one better, though. On Aug. 30, 1973, he no-hit the Chunichi Dragons for 11 innings at Koshien Stadium. He then won his own game when his “sayonara” (walk-off) homer provided the only run of the contest.

Another lefty, 18-year-old Shinichi Kondo of the Dragons, stunned the Giants when he threw a no-hitter against them at the old Nagoya Stadium on Aug. 9, 1987, winning 6-0. It was rookie Kondo’s professional debut on the mound, but the promising youngster never went on to achieve long-term stardom, retiring a few years later with arm trouble.

No-hitters by foreigners in Japan include one thrown by Louisiana cattle farmer Gene Bacque, who milked a 7-0 victory for Hanshin over Yomiuri at Koshien Stadium on June 28, 1965.

Thirty years later, on Sept. 9, 1995, fireballer Terry Bross whitewashed the Giants 4-0 at Tokyo Dome. Throwing for the Yakult Swallows, Bross allowed only one base runner when he hit Yomiuri pinch hitter Takeshi Omori in the foot with a slow curveball.

Bross was dealing that night, though; he struck out 10, and the no-hitter was saved when first-year right-fielder Atsunori Inaba (still playing with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters) made a late-inning diving catch on a sinking liner headed for the turf.

The pitching gem came during Bross’ one super half-season in which he compiled a 9-0 record after the All-Star break (14-5 for the year). He won the CL ERA title with a 2.33 and parlayed that 2 1/2 months of greatness into a five-year Japan career with Yakult and the Seibu Lions but was never able to regain his ’95 success.

Bross is retired and is now a player agent who periodically visits Japan to place U.S. players.

Remember Melvin Bunch with Chunichi?

On April 7, 2000, in his first start in Japan at Yokohama Stadium, he no-hit the BayStars, winning 8-0. He struck out seven but walked five. He led the Central League that year with 14 victories, but his Japan career was cut short two years later.

Scheduled to start a game in August 2002 at Nagoya Dome, Bunch suffered a panic attack while driving to the ballpark. He called his interpreter to say he was turning his car around and going home. Bunch was later examined by doctors in Japan and the U.S. but never pitched another game.

On May 25, 2006, Rick Guttormson threw his first complete game as a professional, no-hitting the Rakuten Eagles 6-0 for the Yakult Swallows at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium. It is the only no-hitter thrown in interleague play in Japan.

There have been 15 perfect games in Japanese baseball history, including the one by Hiromi Makihara of the Giants who retired 27 Hiroshima Carp batters in order at Fukuoka Dome on May 18, 1994. That 6-0 win forever earned Makihara, now a TBS-TV and radio commentator, the nickname of “Mr. Perfect.”

Perhaps the most memorable no-hitter in Japan, though, was the combined perfecto in Game 5 of the Japan Series on Nov. 1, 2007, at Nagoya Dome. Chunichi right-hander Daisuke Yamai did not allow a Fighters base runner through the first eight innings and was about to take his place in history beside Don Larsen, who threw the only World Series perfect game for the New York Yankees against the Brooklyn Dodgers on Oct. 8, 1956.

With a slim 1-0 lead, however, Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai decided to remove Yamai in favor of closer Hitoki Iwase, who retired the side in order in the ninth and sealed the two-pitcher perfect game.

How many more no-hitters will be recorded in the majors this season?

Will we see Japan’s first regular season no-hitter in four years?

Who knows?

It can happen any time on any given night when a pitcher has his stuff working and a lot of good luck. No doubt about it, though; the conclusion of a no-hitter offers one of the most exciting moments in baseball.

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