The realization set in after the sixth inning, and grew in intensity the rest of the night. Every move Kent Mercker made on the mound at Dodger Stadium on Friday was watched with a growing excitement; every pitch Mercker unleashed during the eighth inning kept the crowd of 36,546 in their seats.
Then came the ninth, and while the crowd stood, Atlanta Braves’ Manager Bobby Cox stayed seated in the dugout. His pitcher was throwing a no-hitter, and a nervous Cox wasn’t about to change the momentum.
Mercker ran out to the mound with a 6-0 lead, a score that would stand, and his thoughts were on Brett Butler, the first batter he would face. He hates facing Butler, and all Mercker was thinking was that he had to stay ahead of him.
Butler was down two strikes before he battled back to even the count. Then Mercker threw a fastball on the outside corner, and Butler went down looking.
Mike Piazza stepped to the plate, but he, too, went down on a called third strike. It was a change-up, and it was the pitch Mercker had used to stymie the Dodgers all night.
Then came Eric Karros, who had nearly broken up Mercker’s no-hitter in the sixth inning. But fate would have it otherwise, and when Karros grounded Mercker’s changeup back to him, Mercker held on to ball tight. He was going to throw the ball to Fred McGriff at first base, but his adrenaline was so high, he thought he might throw it into the dugout.
So he ran across toward McGriff and tossed the ball softly, and the Braves’ dugout emptied onto the field. Cox left his seat. Mercker had thrown a no-hitter.
“I had a sense after the sixth inning that something could happen,” Mercker said. “I had two no-hitters going in the past but that’s when I was in the bullpen and I didn’t have the endurance to keep going after six innings. On one of them, we went on to complete the no-hitter. But it’s kind of a joke with the other guys, they can’t believe that I would come out of the game with a no-hitter going. But I told them it’s not my decision, it’s the manager’s.
“Tonight, I had to prove that I had the endurance. I’m glad to just be able to keep up with the other four guys.”
Mercker was the fill-in pitcher last season, the fifth guy on a pitching staff that has accumulated more Cy Young awards than a mantle can hold. He won the fifth spot after last season when he took over after Pete Smith was sidelined, being called out of the bullpen, where he was a mid-reliever. But in Mercker’s six starts last season, his longest outing was six innings.
It was on Sept. 11, 1991, when he combined with Mark Wohlers and Alejandro Pena on a no-hitter against San Diego. And again against the Padres last season, he had a no-hit bid going again, but Cox took him out.
But Cox wasn’t about to take Mercker out this time, especially after the sixth inning, when the best chance the Dodgers had to break up his no-hitter was taken away. That’s when Mercker said he knew something good might happen.
Through six innings, only four balls were hit by the Dodgers that might have gone for base hits. But with two outs in a sixth, Butler, who was on first base with a walk, broke for second to steal on Mercker’s 1-1 pitch to Eric Karros. Karros lined a shot that was headed toward center field, but when Butler broke for second, so did second baseman Mark Lemke, who was in perfect position to catch the ball by the bag for the third out of the inning. Manager Tom Lasorda said Butler was running on his own.
“After the sixth inning when Lemke caught that ball, I had a sense of a no-hitter, " Mercker said, “because there is no way that play should have been made.”
In the second inning, Terry Pendleton made two fine plays at third base on grounders by Raul Mondesi and Jose Offerman. And in the fifth, Deion Sanders made a diving catch in short center field on a sinking fly ball by Offerman.
Meanwhile, Mercker said his legs started to tighten and he lost velocity on his fastball, but his adrenaline kicked in, and he seemed to get stronger. By the end of the game, he had struck out 10, with four walks, none past the sixth inning. He retired the final nine batters in order. And there was only one Dodger to reach second base, Delino DeShields in the first inning, when he walked and stole second.
“You have to give him credit, he pitched a good game, he caught us at a time when we weren’t swinging the bats very well,” said Mike Piazza, who has one hit in 16 at-bats.
Mercker’s performance overshadowed a fine outing by Dodger starter Pedro Astacio, who had a career-high 11 strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings and the debut of Chan Ho Park, who pitched the ninth inning.
Fred McGriff led off the inning by hitting Astacio’s first pitch into the seats in left-center. Terry Pendleton followed later by blasting a shot into the Braves’ bullpen in rightfield. Then in the fourth inning, David Justice took Astacio deep into the seats in right-center to put the Braves up, 3-0.
* SUPPORTING CAST
The Atlanta defense doesn’t rest behind Kent Mercker, making several key contributions to the no-hitter. Allan Malamud’s story, C6
A look at no-hitters pitched against the Dodgers since they moved to Los Angeles, and by the Braves since they moved to Atlanta:
AGAINST THE DODGERS
Date Pitcher Opponent Score April 8, 1994 Kent Mercker Atlanta 6-0 July 28, 1991 Dennis Martinez* Montreal 2-0 Sept. 16, 1988 Tom Browning* at Cincinnati 1-0 Sept. 26, 1982 Nolan Ryan at Houston 5-0 Aug. 9, 1976 John Candelaria at Pittsburgh 2-0
* perfect game
BY THE BRAVES
Date Pitcher Opponent Score April 8, 1994 Kent Mercker at Los Angeles 6-0 Sept. 11, 1991 Kent Mercker (6 innings), San Diego 1-0 Mark Wohlers (2) and Alejandro Pena (1) Aug. 5, 1973 Phil Niekro San Diego 9-0