If there was a team that needed the proverbial “shot in the arm,” it was the Arizona Diamondbacks. They were in the midst of a five-game losing streak when they visited Turner Field to start a three-game series with Atlanta on May 18, 2004. The Diamondbacks were in last place in the National League’s West Division, trailing the Los Angeles Dodgers by 8½ games. The offense was struggling, having scored just eight runs over the last five losses. Arizona had just been swept by its cellar-dweller brethren in the East Division, the Montreal Expos. The Diamondbacks managed to cross the plate four times in the three-game series.
But if you need a stopper, someone to stop the bleeding, who better than Randy Johnson? The five-time Cy Young Award winner may have been 40 years old, but he could still bring the heat. Unfortunately, the Big Unit was not immune to the putrid offensive support by his mates. In his last two outings, Johnson had hurled admirably but loss nonetheless. On May 7 he gave up two earned runs, struck out 10, and lost to the Phillies, 4-1. In his next start, against the Mets on May 12, he surrendered one earned run and whiffed seven batters, but took the loss, 1-0, dropping his record to 3-4.
The Atlanta Braves’ fortunes in the early part of 2004 were a bit better than those of their guests. Although their record was 17-19, they were in a virtual tie for third place with New York in the NL East Division. They trailed the front-running Florida Marlins by only 3½ games.
Atlanta’s starting pitcher was Mike Hampton, a left-handed pitcher who was having his own problems. He sported an 0-4 record and a 7.41 ERA thus far in the young season. Johnson and Hampton were not unfamiliar with each other, as they were teammates in 1993 with Seattle and in 1998 in Houston.
After a scoreless first inning, Arizona struck first. With two outs in the top of the second, Danny Bautista singled to right field. Alex Cintron followed with a double to center, Bautista scored, and the visitors led 1-0. In the Braves’ half of the second inning, Johnson struck out Johnny Estrada and J.D. Drew. Six up and six down for the Big Unit, and he also had four K’s.
In an era where baseball games tended to approach or exceed three hours in length, this game was clipping right along. Hampton was giving a good account of himself, having given up only the single run. In the home half of the fifth inning, the Braves went down in order, all on balls hit to the outfield. Drew hit a liner to the corner in right field that was hauled in by Bautista with a basket catch. It was the only inning in which Johnson did not record at least one strikeout in the game. In the sixth inning, Hampton tapped a slow roller that shortstop Cintron scooped up and fired to first base, nipping the Braves pitcher by a half-step.
In the top of the seventh, Cintron was involved in the scoring again. After a one-out double down the left-field line, Cintron scored on a single by Chad Tracy. The Diamondbacks’ lead was pushed out to 2-0. As for the Braves, their parade to the plate came in threes.Three batters came to bat, three batters sent back to the dugout.
In the eighth inning, Andruw Jones flied out, but not before losing his bat trying to catch up to a Johnson fastball. And that was the diet Randy fed the Braves, a fastball that was moving and a superb slider. As Johnson came up to bat in the ninth inning, a good portion of the 23,381 fans at the Braves ballpark cheered him. He grounded out, short to first.
As Johnson trudged out to the mound for the bottom of the ninth inning, the cheers increased. The first batter, Mark DeRosa, grounded out to second baseman Matt Kata. Johnson struck out Nick Green and then pinch-hitter Eddie Perez. His last pitch to Perez was a 98-mph fastball. The Big Unit could still hum it in there, as he recorded his 13th strikeout. His teammates mobbed him; Johnson had thrown the first no-hitter in Diamondbacks history.
“He could smell it at the end,” said the Braves’ catcher, Johnny Estrada. “This was a legitimate perfect game any way you slice it.”1 Added Chipper Jones, who struck out all three times he came to bat, “It was a situation where a dominant pitcher caught a struggling team.”2
Although Johnson did not seem to be affected by the pressure of the situation, his manager, Bob Brenly, started fidgeting around the sixth inning. Johnson at times looked bored sitting in the dugout. “It didn’t faze me,” he said. ”Winning the game was the biggest, most important thing.”3 But he also acknowledged that the feat was a big deal. He became only the fifth pitcher in major-league history to hurl a no-hitter in each league. (Cy Young, Jim Bunning, Nolan Ryan, and Hideo Nomo preceded him.) Johnson threw his first on June 2, 1990, against the Detroit Tigers while a member of the Seattle Mariners. “A game like this was pretty special. It doesn’t come along very often. Not bad for being 40 years old. Everything was locked in.”4
“This is one of those nights where a superior athlete was on top of his game,” Brenly said. “There was a tremendous rhythm out there. His focus, his concentration, his stuff, everything was as good as it could be. Everything he’s done up to this point pales in comparison.”5
Although the perfect game was obviously the highlight of Arizona’s season, the Diamondbacks could not overcome a disappointing season. They completed the year with a 51-111 record, 42 games out of first place. Johnson posted a 16-14 record and led the league with 290 strikeouts. No other pitcher on the Diamondbacks staff had more than seven wins.
The Braves wound up in their customary position atop the NL East Division. It was their 10th consecutive division title. They lost in the NLDS to Houston in five games. Mike Hampton, who went the distance against Johnson on May 18 and pitched his best game of the season, used the game as a catapult to a strong season. He went 13-4 the rest of the season, with a 4.28 ERA.
1 “Johnson K’s 13 in perfect effort,” ESPN.com, May 19, 2004.
3 “Johnson Simply Perfect at 40,” USA Today, May 19, 2004.