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MLB Notebook: Morrow, Felix put together strong runs

Each righty tossed shutouts on three or fewer hits three times in seven-start span

On June 6, 2012, with Toronto taking on the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, Blue Jays right-hander Brandon Morrow stood on the mound in the ninth inning, came to a set, and delivered a sharp-breaking 86-mph slider to Dayan Viciedo that the White Sox left fielder tipped into the glove of catcher J.P. Arencibia. The pitch, delivered on a 1-2 count with two outs and runners on first and third, provided a resounding exclamation point to a brilliant two-hit shutout authored by Morrow. It was the third time in his past seven starts that Morrow had gone the distance and held the opposition to no runs and no more than three hits.

Two months later, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez was standing on the mound in the ninth inning at Safeco Field, holding a 2-2 count on the Rays’ Sean Rodriguez. No runners were on, the Mariners held a 1-0 lead, and all eyes were on the man in the middle of the diamond. The delivery from the windup was made, Rodriguez was frozen, the home-plate umpire gave the unmistakable gesture of a strike-three call, and King Felix had thrown the final pitch in the 23rd perfect game in Major League history. The history-making performance also happened to mark the third time over Hernandez’s past seven starts that he’d thrown a shutout while allowing no more than three hits.

Morrow’s trio of sterling efforts, beginning with a three-hit shutout against the Angels on May 3 and including a three-hit shutout against the Mets on May 19, made him the first American League pitcher to have three shutouts on three or fewer hits in a season since Mike Mussina in 2001. Mussina’s three came over a span of 27 starts, making Morrow’s relatively compressed stretch even more noteworthy.

In fact, to find an AL pitcher who had three such shutouts in such a small span of starts, one has to venture back to Roger Clemens in his Triple Crown season of 1998. In late August of that year, The Rocket hurled a pair of three-hit shutouts and a two-hitter with no runs allowed over three consecutive starts, making him only the fifth pitcher since ‘16 to have three such low-hit shutouts in consecutive efforts in a single season -- the others being Teddy Higuera in ‘87, Woodie Fryman in ‘66, Sandy Koufax in ‘63 and Bob Feller in ‘47.

The other interesting note with regard to Morrow’s three low-hit, no-run complete games relates to the timing of the accomplishment. When Morrow tossed that two-hit shutout against the White Sox, the performance helped the Blue Jays improve to 30-26 and made him just the fourth AL pitcher in the designated hitter era (since 1973) to have three shutouts on three or fewer hits within his team’s first 56 contests. The company he kept was pretty impressive, as he joined Nolan Ryan (‘75), Jim Palmer (‘78) and Clemens (1988) as the only ones to do it.

So, Morrow stood in a fairly notable place on the morning of June 7, looking ahead to another 106 team games (and ideally, about 21 more starts) to see how close he might be able to come to Koufax’s high mark (in the live-ball era) of eight shutouts on no more than three hits in 1963. Alas, Morrow would construct no more during the 2012 season, as he spent about two and a half months on the disabled list and never went more than eight innings in any of his subsequent starts.

That’s where Hernandez comes in.

Hernandez’s run of brilliance began on July 14, while facing the Rangers (who would finish the season as the AL’s top run-scoring team) in Seattle. In an absolute masterpiece, the Mariners right-hander held Texas to just three hits, fanned 12 with no walks and picked up his seventh victory of the year while producing his second shutout of the season. The effort marked just the 33rd time since 1916 a pitcher had hurled a shutout on no more than three hits with at least 12 strikeouts and no walks.

Four starts later, Hernandez made a little more history, holding the Yankees, who finished the season with the second-most runs per game in the league, to just two hits in a 1-0 victory. It had been 34 years since another pitcher -- Palmer -- had shut out the Yankees on two or fewer hits in a 1-0 game in the Bronx (on June 1, 1978), giving Hernandez’s effort a little extra bump of appreciation.

And then there was the perfect game, during which Hernandez fanned 12 batters, giving him the fourth-most punchouts in any of the 23 perfectos hurled in baseball history. In all, over a stretch of seven starts, Hernandez had vibrantly illustrated his immense talents, arsenal and potential for dominance.

With the six combined efforts from Morrow and Hernandez as part of the overall work in the AL this past year, the season ended with AL staffs allowing 4.40 runs per game, the lowest mark for the league since 1992. Coincidentally (or maybe not), that ‘92 season also happened to be the most recent before 2012 to have two AL pitchers each produce at least three shutouts on no more than three hits.

Clemens was the first to do it in 1992, with a two-hit shutout against the Twins on July 18 completing his trifecta. The first of the three had come in Clemens’ second start of the year, when he held the Indians to two hits and beat the Tribe, 3-0. A month later, Clemens defeated the Royals, holding Kansas City to only three hits (with George Brett responsible for two of them) in a 5-0 victory. In all, Clemens’ three gems came over a span of 18 starts and were part of a season in which he captured his third consecutive ERA title.

A week after Clemens’ third, the Red Sox right-hander was joined by Ron Darling. Pitching for the Athletics, Darling tossed a two-hit shutout against the Blue Jays (the second-highest run-scoring team in the AL that year) on July 25, giving him three two-hit shutouts that season (his other two came on May 24 against the Red Sox and July 12 against Toronto). With his three efforts (coming over a 12-start span), Darling had become the 11th AL pitcher in the DH era to have at least three shutouts on no more than two hits in a season, and the first to accomplish this feat since Dave Stieb in 1988.

To find an AL season in which more than two pitchers had three shutouts on three or fewer hits, one has to go back to 1988, with Mark Gubicza, Stieb, Greg Swindell and Clemens all doing it. The most in the AL in the DH-era came in 1976, when six pitchers -- Bert Blyleven, Ed Figueroa, Palmer, Dave Goltz, Rick Wise and Ryan achieved the feat. Actually, those six in ’76 are the most for any AL season since ‘16.

It’s a fun list to look at, and one that would probably have remained unobserved if not for the brilliance of Morrow and Hernandez in 2012.

Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions.
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