“On a Wednesday night in Texas,” Michael Kay said from the faraway confines of his TV booth in the Bronx, New York, “Kluber becomes part of forever.”
Broadcasters are history’s narrators, but with the exception of players reaching round-numbered milestones, it’s rare that a moment offers the build-up of a no-hitter. For Kay, every “See Ya!” is elevated by the suddenness of the feat. Whether Giancarlo Stanton or Tyler Wade, a home run never offers more than an instant’s notice. Similarly, there was no amount of expectation that could have pre-scripted his exuberant cry of “Derek Jeter! Where fantasy becomes reality!” when the Yankees’ captain cracked a walk-off single in his final at-bat at Yankee Stadium.
On May 19, though, as Corey Kluber rolled through inning after inning of hitless ball, there was a crescendo of excitement. No-hitters sneak up on you, until they don’t. Sure, any run of zeroes is subject to the whims of fate, the inescapable reality that a perfect pitch can be blooped into no-man’s land, just as simply as a mistake over the heart of the plate can be crushed into the webbing of an infielder’s glove. Baseball isn’t fair, until it is.
Kluber’s gem won’t go down as a perfect game; a third-inning walk (on four pitches, no less) ensured that. But as Kay and Paul O’Neill worked to make sense of the drama, and as Kluber toyed with one Rangers batter after another, it was hard to imagine anything better. A two-time AL Cy Young Award winner who showed up in New York after barely pitching in two years. An outing on the mound where he pitched his lone 2020 inning before succumbing to injury, against the team that had traded for him with hopes of more than that solitary frame. An infielder playing right field and called into action for five putouts in just seven innings, the last of them a running catch in the ninth inning that seemed, off the bat, to be the no-no’s anticlimactic and devastating yes.
What could be more perfect?
If you’d like, you can offer up caveats. Kluber’s no-hitter was the sixth of a season that was just seven weeks old (the seventh if you count Madison Bumgarner’s seven-inning no-no in a doubleheader). It was the second in a span of less than 24 hours, following Spencer Turnbull’s no-hitter for the Tigers the night before. It’s certainly reasonable to wonder if the changes that Major League Baseball made to the ball are having an outsized impact. And so, as Kluber kept rolling and as the Rangers kept flailing, Kay could prepare to meet the moment; he hinted after the seventh that fans might want to alert their friends; after the eighth, he dared acknowledge that the pitcher was three outs from a no-hitter. But when that last out came, it’s not like it happened out of nowhere. If you want to be dismissive because you saw it coming, no one can stop you.
History will side with Kay, though. Kluber is a part of forever now, the author of the 12th no-hitter in Yankees history. In his ninth start for the team, in a season with a final narrative that isn’t even close to being written, Kluber ensured that his name will live eternally in the tome of the franchise’s legendary moments, as much because of the team’s love for history as for the pitcher’s unwillingness to claim his rightful share of the credit.
“I think that it’ll go down as a no-hitter in my name,” he said, “but obviously it takes the entire team to accomplish something like that.”
Just two hours before the game’s first pitch, Kluber’s manager was taking part in his daily pregame Zoom session with reporters when he was asked about the prevalence of no-hitters in 2021.
“I think we have a lot of really good pitching, a lot of pitching that’s taught really well,” Aaron Boone said. “I think we’re outfitting pitchers with the repertoires that they all should individually have, and plans of attacks that are really tightened up, coupled with, in my opinion, stuff that, across the board, didn’t exist, even when I played 15 and 20 years ago. When I watch the game now, it’s a different level across the board.”
Following Kluber’s 101-pitch gem, an elated Boone acknowledged that the pregame questions had him thinking no-hitter much earlier than he might otherwise have. “For some reason it popped in my head in the first inning,” he said after the celebration. “I’m not kidding.”
That first frame looked remarkable to the untrained eye. Kluber appeared to paint the inside corner on a changeup that froze left-hander Willie Calhoun for the first out, then he locked up right-hander Nick Solak with a breaking ball on the inside corner for a second consecutive strikeout. Watching on the YES Network, with the strike zone superimposed over the frame, Kluber seemingly dotted the inside edge on both pitches, on opposite sides of the plate, no less. Surely, Boone’s antennae weren’t the only ones that perked up in the moment.
But Kluber wasn’t convinced. The outcomes looked exceptional, but in fact he had missed his spots.
“I didn’t execute either of those pitches,” he said afterward. “We were trying to go away with the changeup to Willie, and I yanked it inside to him. And then Solak, we were trying to go down and away with the breaking ball, and I accidentally front-doored him with it.”
As the night wore on, though, the precision matched the perception. Kluber employed his typically unpredictable mix of pitches, his 101 offerings split up into 31 breaking balls, 27 cutters, 23 sinkers, 18 changeups and just two four-seamers. His velocity never cracked 93 mph, but the pitcher relied on his sometimes-unclassifiable arsenal to keep the Rangers off balance. He struck out nine batters, and of the 18 balls that were put in play, just four came off Texas bats faster than 95 mph.
“He definitely mixed up his pitches,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said. “You saw a lot of weird swings at the curveball and the slider, even though we kind of know what’s coming at times. It just shows you how sharp it is and how late the break is, and our guys weren’t picking it up right away.”
The funny thing about what Woodward referred to as “the curveball and the slider,” though, is that it’s actually the same pitch, or neither. On the broadcast, O’Neill kept marveling at Kluber’s slider. Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka raved afterward about the pitcher’s curveball. But as Eno Sarris wrote on FanGraphs back in 2015, and as Kluber has continued to maintain, it’s actually one pitch that really profiles as neither, with more horizontal break than a curveball and more vertical break than a slider. The best way to describe it is as a pitch thrown with what appears to be a curveball grip that breaks like a slider. Kluber, who was drafted out of Stetson University -- the same school that produced another two-time Cy Young Award winner, Jacob deGrom -- refuses to call it a curveball or a slider because he says that to name it one or the other would encourage him to throw it that way.
You can see why he might can be a tough guy to face.
“The way I would put it is when it’s at its best, his breaking ball goes forward for a long time, it seems like,” Boone explained the next day. “And then he gets that tight, hard, late break on it. Pretty big break, too. It’s not subtle. It doesn’t seem like that gradual bead on it that you get on a breaking ball that’s breaking the whole way. His seems to go forward for a long time, giving the illusion to a hitter that it could be another pitch.”
Whatever the pitch is, his 31 offerings drew 12 swings, just five of which connected. In total, 61 percent of his Kluballs ended in either a called strike or a whiff. Adding to the allure was the impressive center field camera at Texas’s Globe Life Field, which is positioned perfectly behind the pitcher. From that perspective, every break was visible.
And so, after Boone spoke glowingly in the pregame about the way that Kluber’s command has been improving from one start to the next after his long layoff, the proof came in nine innings of near perfection.
“It was just a special kind of a clinic on pitching,” Boone said afterward. And Kluber was pleased with the way that mysterious breaking pitch has developed, to the point that he eventually had it doing everything he wanted to anytime he threw it.
“I think that I’ve probably been getting more and more comfortable with it, as far as throwing the right one when I want to land a first strike, the right one when I want to try to get a swing on it, the right one when I want to get them to chase it, that sort of stuff,” the pitcher said. “Not saying that I execute every one the way I want to, talking about that one in the first inning. But I think just on a more consistent basis, kind of throwing it where and the way that I want to over the last few starts.”
It’s cliched and mostly silly at this point to note Kluber’s nickname; indeed, on a team that already has a “Machine,” a Klubot isn’t the outlier that it might seem.
And yet, there was a clear sense of perspective in the aftermath. An uncharacteristically euphoric Kluber lifted his arms in the air as first baseman Luke Voit closed his mitt on the final out; the normally staid pitcher then found himself hoisting his catcher high off the ground. But Kluber’s comments after the fact, despite acknowledging the emotion and excitement, still came mostly straight-faced. The right-hander has a tendency to smirk slightly as he answers questions, lifting the left edge of his somewhat-clenched lips as the question wraps up. His words are almost as precise as his pitches. Kluber said he was emotional, but he looked nothing like Turnbull had the night before, the Tigers’ pitcher’s face covered in the remnants of a shaving cream pie as he stated that he had just enjoyed the best night of his life.
Maybe that’s fitting. No-hitters are fueled by emotion, but they also build differently from most baseball moments. The 28-year-old Turnbull’s no-no came in his 50th start, for a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2014; Kluber had started 212 games before his big night, to say nothing of the postseason starts and the awards on his mantel. Perhaps it’s also worth noting that the 35-year-old Kluber is married with three children.
“I probably would compare it to kind of the feeling before maybe my first playoff start,” Kluber said of the game’s late innings. “Heart beating faster, some adrenaline going, things like that. In that sense, maybe it was helpful that I’ve kind of felt that before and had that to go back on to sort of know what to do in that situation to get myself to relax a little bit.”
A no-hitter is the celebration of the negative, of doing exactly what you’re supposed to as a pitcher, only more times than seems practical. Some pitchers love discussing how they get guys out; others demur and try to make the whole thing seem less complicated than it is, some combination of great teamwork, excellent fortune and adrenaline working to get a few more outs than normal.
But for a pitcher such as Corey Kluber, a no-hitter is an embrace of the normal. His job is to get outs. He did that in Texas. What more is there to say?
“I just think it was a lot of fun,” the pitcher understated on the field immediately after the celebration. “It was a well-played game on both sides. We were able to scratch a couple runs across. It was fun to be a part of.”
So we rely on Boone and Higashioka and Wade for further insight. On good nights or bad, we never really expect much in the way of emotion from Kluber, so thankfully, teammates could demonstrate the visceral heft of a night, whether in the Zoom room or, in the case of Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole, in the way they hopped over the dugout fence to race toward the night’s heroes, their boyish grins and exaggerated speed speaking to posterity.
Boone had never been part of a no-hitter before, and after the game, there was no sense of a baseball lifer numbed to the prevalence of hitless games in 2021.
“I had butterflies in that ninth inning,” he said. “I’m getting a little emotional now. Even just getting to witness that was really, really special. And to see his teammates and the excitement of everyone for Corey, and just the excitement for themselves being a part of such a thing. Man, what a performance. What can you say?”
There was an inability to process the moment from the teammates with whom Kluber insisted on sharing the spotlight. Wade noted with incredulity that Brett Gardner had mentioned the no-hitter to him as they headed to the field in the seventh inning. “And I was like, ‘Bro, I can’t believe you just said that.’ But he just wanted to make me aware just to know that if anything was close, I had to go all out for it.”
Inserted into right field after Ryan LaMarre injured his hamstring in the top of the third inning, Wade was a magnet for the ball all night, and he never faltered, despite the large crowd -- the Texas series being the first time since October of 2019 that the Yankees had played a meaningful game in anything resembling a full house -- making it impossible for him to hear the ball off the bat. No matter; Wade was ready to run through walls to preserve his pitcher’s gem.
“That was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of in my life,” Wade said, his energy more in line with Turnbull’s than Kluber’s. “I’m getting goosebumps talking about it.”
For Gleyber Torres, who was positioned perfectly to field the game-ending grounder, the thoughts went to the no-hitters he had seen in video games. In his first game back from a stint on the COVID-19 injured list, he was at the center of the action. “It was amazing,” he said the next day. “Too many feelings last night. I’m so happy to be here and be part of that.”
For all the work that the players did to back up their pitcher and try to remain cool, nobody had a harder time than Higashioka. The catcher was on point with his pitch-calling all night, zagging when others might zig.
“He was unreal back there tonight,” Kluber said of his batterymate. “When they were geared up for a fastball, he was on it. When they were looking offspeed, he was on it. I feel like he just had a really good feel of what they were trying to do and then called a great game back there.”
So how did the catcher stay cool and collected? “I’m probably the wrong person to ask,” Higashioka said, “because I was not calm at all. I was doing a little hyperventilating on the bench between the eighth and ninth inning.”
The impact of a no-hitter is different from clinching a postseason series, even if the immediate aftermath looks the same. The Yankees massed in a group bear-hug after the final out, throwing water all over the victorious pitcher, and once things moved to the clubhouse, they doused Kluber and Higashioka with a couple cases of beer. But there was still a game to be played the next day, then 118 more after that.
Still, after a night in which Boone returned to the hotel and watched highlights from a historic game, the manager was willing to consider some of the familiarities following what he had just witnessed, and his own memorable night for the ages. In 2003, when Boone hit the ALCS-ending home run in extra innings, it was an instantaneous trip into the history books, Boone’s role lacking any prologue. But he heard some echoes on May 19.
“I think there’s some similarities when, as last night builds, and you’re hanging on the edge of your seat certainly in the last innings, [thinking] what could happen, potentially witnessing some history. It’s pretty emotional on both ends, whether it’s a series-ending game to move onto the World Series, or last night, getting a taste of history, getting to witness it. Different, but a lot of similarities.”
Nine innings of no-hit ball hopefully won’t define Kluber’s season, and it won’t necessarily be in the first line of his obituary. Yet there could be 100 more no-hitters thrown in 2021, and it will still rate as an unforgettable moment for everyone involved, whether those on the field, in the dugout, in the stadium or across from a TV screen. Baseball can too often be frustrating, a 162-game ordeal of overcoming constant failure. On one night, just his 17th start since the end of the 2018 season, Kluber harnessed that failure as a weapon; indeed, he created failure. He did it all night. He did it on what was supposed to be his home mound in 2020, but where he was able to throw just one inning.
“I think if we’re going to get sentimental, I think it was probably cool for me, personally, that it happened here,” Kluber said afterwards. But wherever and whenever, it was history. The Yankees’ last no-hitter came in 1999, despite all the success the franchise has enjoyed since then. No-hitters are weird like that. They don’t always happen when they should. Jordan Montgomery said he couldn’t believe that Kluber had never thrown one before, and watching his balls hit the edges of the zone all night, it was just as easy to wonder how he hadn’t thrown 12 already.
So Kluber’s no-hitter will be looked at as both a monumental achievement, and hopefully something that’s overshadowed soon enough. He came to New York to get a ring, not to throw a no-hitter. But you’re crazy if you don’t enjoy the magic when it’s happening in front of you.
“I think it’s one of the reasons we do this is to have those feelings, those competitive moments, where you do have those butterflies,” Boone said.
“You dedicate a lot to this game, you face so many great moments, trials, tribulations, adversity, whatever. To have a night and to see Corey go out and do what he did was truly special.”