So very close!

If you’re a Cubs fan under the age of fifty, like I am, there’s two things, at least, that you probably have not seen in a ballgame. One is the Cubs in the World Series (but Someday we’ll go all the way, right?) and the other is a no-hitter involving the Cubs.

The last no-hitter in Wrigley Field was Milt Pappas’ controversial perfect game/no-hitter in 1972, and the last time the Cubs were no-hit was by Sandy Koufax in 1965. So unless you were at Carlos Zambano’s no-hitter against the Astros in Miller Park six years ago, you haven’t yet seen a game of this magnitude. But Tuesday night’s game couldn’t have been any closer.

As I settled in to my seat with a group of my work colleagues, I noticed that Jake Arrieta had not yet allowed any hits. I was excited at the prospect of a no-hitter, in the way that I think everyone is until the first hit almost inevitably comes. But then once it disappears, the game seems to lose some of its luster. That’s my experience, at least.

But the Cubs had scratched out a run, so Arrieta would be spared the same fate as Harvey Haddix back in 1959, when he pitched 12 perfect innings and still lost when his team could not score a run for him. And the way Arrieta was pitching, that one run was all he needed.

The Cubs busted the game open in the sixth, with Chris Coughlan’s bases-clearing double as the big blow. When Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer came out to sing the stretch, they–and everyone else in the park–knew that Arrieta was just six outs away from baseball history. But they dared not to say anything, because that superstition runs very deep.

As the Cubs were batting in the bottom of the seventh, I told my colleagues that Arrieta would stay in the game until he gave up a hit, but that he would be pulled as soon as he allowed a hit. When the Reds came up to bat in the top of the eighth, a large number of people who would have probably left after the stretch under normal circumstances remained in the park. Why go home, when history was waiting to be made?

After Jay Bruce struck out to lead off the eighth, a thought occurred to me. I don’t know why, but I thought back to 2003, when the Cubs were five outs from advancing to the World Series in Wrigley Field, and they let it slip away. Five more outs, and that was all.

And sure enough, Brandon Phillips smoked a ball into the same part of the field where Coughlan had hit his gapper in the fifth. It looked like a hit from the moment it left the bat, but Coughlan laid out in the hopes of preserving the no-no. It might not have had the perfect-game saving drama that Dewayne Wyse had in saving Mark Buehrle’s perfect game back in 2009, but it was the kind of play that–if Coughlan had caught the ball–I would be telling people about for the rest of my days. But he came up about a foot short, and Arrieta had still another near-miss to add to his collection this year.

When the crowd rose to cheer Arrieta’s outing, and the manager came out to the mound, I thought he was done for the evening. But he hadn’t yet thrown 90 pitches in the game, so the decision to leave him in the game shouldn’t have been a surprise. It was almost like saying “So what you lost the no-hitter? You have a big lead, and you’re throwing the ball really well, so why not keep going?”

Leaving him in the game turned out to be a great move, as Arrieta finished with 13 strikeouts and a complete game one-hit shutout. Even though “masterpiece” seems to be a term reserved for a no-hitter, I would call Arrieta’s outing a masterpiece, no doubt about it. The no-hitter will have to wait for another day.

R. Lincoln Harris is a guest contributor for Wrigleyville Nation. He also writes for BlueBattingHelmet.Wordpress.com, ChicagoSideSports.com, ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com, and FiveWideSports.com. Thanks R. Lincoln for the contribution!