Josh Thole is on the road with the Bisons getting ready for tonight’s game in Norfolk. A year ago today, he was in the middle of one of the most memorable games in New York Mets history.
It was game No. 8,020 of the Mets’ 51 seasons, on a windy Friday night in Citi Field against the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, with temperatures in the mid-60s. No reason to think anything epic was about to happen.
But it turned out to be anything but a routine night. With Thole behind the plate catching every delivery, veteran left-hander Johan Santana fired the first no-hitter for a franchise that had tossed 35 one-hitters but never had the ultimate moment.
Oddly enough, Thole nearly missed his place in Mets history. He was on injury rehab the previous afternoon in Buffalo, catching fellow rehabber Chris Young, and the Mets wanted him to stay another day or two in Triple-A to get more at-bats. He told them he had been out of the lineup for more than a month after a concussion and wanted to get back to New York so they let him return.
Thole said the pregame warm-up in the bullpen was ordinary. It was just another game on the schedule until it suddenly turned a lot more serious.
“It was normal Johan at the start. Just screwing around on the mound, clowning around in the dugout the first couple innings,” Thole recalled last week prior to a Bisons game in Coca-Cola Field. “After the fifth inning, he sat at the end of the bench not talking to anybody. He stopped talking. From about the seventh inning on, I didn’t hear the crowd at all. You’re so focused that it was weird how you just zoned it in.
“Everybody is minding their own business at this point. Nobody wanted to say anything. It was a funny mood, really strange. Typically when Johan pitches, he works hard and busts his butt but still has fun doing it. This night, you saw something different. He was in a zone. We all were.”
The Mets got a couple of huge breaks to keep the gem going. Carlos Beltran’s scorcher down the third-base line leading off the sixth was fair – but was called foul by umpire Adrian Johnson. And with one out in the seventh, Mike Baxter crashed into the left-field wall to snare Yadier Molina’s drive that seemed destined for a double.
“That’s what happens in a no-hitter all the time,” Thole said. “It’s one play that saves it and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this could be the play.’ ’’
Santana was coming off shoulder surgery in September 2010 that sidelined him for 19 months. In his 10 previous starts in 2012, he had gone past 100 pitches only three times and never went past 108. During his daily pregame briefing with reporters that night, Mets manager Terry Collins said there was no way the number would ever go past 110-115.
“They had the pitch count up there on the board and you knew what you were getting into,” Thole said. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘They’re going to have to make a decision’ but by the same token this guy had two Cy Youngs and had yet to have a no-hitter. You’ve got to go for it. It was the perfect play.
“All the great pitchers that have come through there: Seaver, Ryan, Pedro, Glavine. Go down the list. Tons and tons of names. They didn’t throw a no-hitter for the Mets. Why not let it be Johan?”
But as Santana went through six no-hit innings in 93 pitches, and then seven in 108, Collins and pitching coach Dan Warthen had a real dilemma on their hands. The weight of franchise history was simply too great. Collins, the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer, came to the mound and told Santana he was in dangerous territory. Santana, a 33-year-old with more than 2,000 innings behind him, kept telling his manager he wasn’t coming out. Finally, Collins said to him, “You’re my hero” and rolled the dice.
“If you would have taken him out, I promise you not only would the fans have been in an uproar, but the players would have too,” Thole said. “I feel like David Wright would have gone up to him and said, ‘Skip, run him back out there. We’re going to take a chance here.’ ’’
By the ninth, SNY broadcaster and former Met Ron Darling called it “a runaway train.” There was no way Santana was coming out. Thole was focused on calling the right pitches. There wasn’t much help coming from the dugout. Thole would call for a pitch and Santana would either throw it or ask for a different signal.
“Put down the right fingers. That’s all I’m thinking,” Thole said. “You’re just as responsible. You’re trying to read swings. We went to his change-up a lot more late in the game. We must have thrown two dozen of them. It was one of those things where you’ve got to go to his best pitch.”
The ninth inning went relatively quickly. Matt Holliday led off with a broken-bat looper to center fielder Andres Torres. Allen Craig followed with another soft looper, to Kirk Nieuwenhuis in left. The last out was a swinging strike on World Series MVP David Freese on one last Santana change-up.
Thole pumped his fist, turned to umpire Gary Cederstrom and bolted to the mound, putting Santana in a bear hug as teammates poured from the dugout to join them.
“I showed the ball to Gary. Everybody saw it but I was still like, ‘Look, I caught the ball,’ ’’ Thole said. “Then I didn’t know what to do. I suppose I should have taken my mask off. I didn’t know. I remember seeing him standing there with his arms up and thinking, ‘This just happened.’ It was insane. I didn’t know what to think.”
The negative postscript was that Santana wasn’t the same after the no-hitter. He went just 3-7 in his final 10 starts and was 0-5 with a 15.63 ERA in July and August before finally getting shut down. He came back to spring training this year and tore the same anterior capsule in his shoulder on which he had surgery. By all accounts, his career is over.
So did all those pitches a year ago in effect end his career? Collins seemed to think so when asked about it in April, vis-a-vis letting ace prospect Matt Harvey go 121 pitches deep in a game in Miami.
“I don’t think you sacrifice the organization’s future, Matt Harvey himself, or this organization for 10 more pitches,” Collins said. “It’s not worth it. It just isn’t worth it. That’s what I felt last year when we let Johan go out there in the no-hitter. OK, history’s being made here, but it turned out not to be a very good idea by the way. A lot of people are happy they saw the no-hitter, but I wish he was starting today, I can tell you that.”
“That’s not why, no way,” Thole insisted. “Johan has been pitching for ages. Eventually, you’re going to wear down. The guy works so hard. I don’t have a lot of history with other staffs but watching Johan prepare and get ready, you would be beyond surprised about the treatment he got before the games. His back, his legs, his arm. Everything. It was a process for him to pitch.
“I one-thousand percent stand behind Terry and Dan and that decision,” he said, referring to Collins and Warthen. “It’s history. If it’s a young super prospect at 150 pitches, you have to figure out what’s going on. Then maybe it’s not the right play.”
Thole said he was at the ballpark past 1 a.m. helping Santana through dozens of interviews. The Mets authenticated pieces of his equipment and have them in their museum at Citi Field.
Thole said the only game he’s caught that came close to being this memorable for him was R.A. Dickey’s imperfect perfect game in Buffalo in 2010. Dickey gave up a leadoff single and retired the next 27 Durham Bulls.
“That was neat, a really cool experience but now you look at it and say, ‘I’ve caught a no-hitter in the big leagues,’ ’’ Thole said. “I want to get back to the big leagues but that’s a game I’ll always have. I instantly think it was a piece of history of where I grew up. I came through the Mets chain.
“When I got called up in 2009, I had no idea there had been no no-hitters in the big leagues. That was amazing to me. When they tell you that, about how many games were on that onrunning clock, I feel like I was lucky enough to be part of history to finally catch the one.”