King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Reds rookie Cueto debuts with five perfect innings. There's nothing like a brewing no-hitter. Plus: The Final Four overdogs.


King Kaufman
April 4, 2008 2:38PM (UTC)

Cincinnati Reds rookie pitcher Johnny Cueto took a perfect game into the sixth inning in his major league debut against the Arizona Diamondbacks Thursday. Justin Upton homered to lead off the top of the sixth, leaving Cueto with one of the most spectacular first games ever: Seven innings, one run, one hit, 10 strikeouts, no walks.

After five innings, with Cueto still perfect, the front page of MLB.com had him as the lead story. "Reds' Cueto impressive in Major League debut," read the headline. There was a photo of Cueto pitching and an image of the line score, including, plain as day, Arizona's totals in the runs, hits and errors columns: 0-0-0.

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The subhead read, "Rookie flamethrower Johnny Cueto is racking up the strikeouts against the defending NL West champion." At the time, Cueto had struck out eight. And he had a perfect game going.

Kind of burying the lead there, wouldn't you say?

MLB.com was following the baseball tradition of never mentioning a no-hitter while it's going on. The meat and potatoes of that one is in the dugout. Teammates of a pitcher throwing a no-no not only won't mention the no-hitter, they won't talk to him about anything. They won't even sit near him.

You can see the logic around that. The guy's in a zone, you don't want to make him start thinking about what he's in the process of doing by talking about it. Then again, the total cold shoulder can have the opposite effect. A pitcher can be sailing along, feeling like he has his good stuff that day, then all of a sudden notice that everybody's at the other end of the dugout, which, given his mainstream bathing habits, could only mean one thing. Now he's in a cold sweat. Holy crap, I'm throwing a no-hitter.

More than one pitcher has mentioned this phenomenon after taking a no-hitter into the middle innings.

When it moves beyond the dugout is when this kind of thing gets a little silly. Whether the TV or radio announcers should mention it is a subject of debate. Most won't, or they'll talk around it: Cueto really has something special going on here, folks, if you know what I mean. Whole bunch of zeros up there.

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Mention a no-hitter by the home pitcher in the stands and someone nearby will hit you with a withering glare west of the Mississippi, a high-volume lecture east of it.

MLB.com's tiptoe around the subject Thursday was the first time I've noticed a print or Web entity respecting the tradition. A no-hitter in progress is an eye-catcher, and most sports-related sites aren't shy about trying to grab your attention when one's going on.

It certainly would have served the interest of MLB Advanced Media, which runs MLB.com, to trumpet the fact of Cueto's historical debut. Who knows how many subscriptions to MLB.tv could have been sold just to people who would have wanted a chance to see the first no-hitter thrown in a major league debut since Bumpus Jones -- also of the Cincinnati Reds! -- dazzled the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1892.

From a mound 50 feet away, not 60 feet, 6 inches. Which I mention just to show off that I know it.

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I like silly traditions as much as the next guy, even when they're superstitions, which I don't believe in. I think it's cool that not mentioning a no-hitter is something we all do together, we baseball fans. It's one of the little ties that bind.

That said, I always make a point of mentioning a possible no-hitter when I see one. I'll start talking about it in the fourth, a good inning or so before anybody else even starts thinking about it. As soon as I noticed Cueto's gem Thursday, which I did when he'd completed five perfect innings, I sent out a couple of instant messages to alert buddies.

The odds that a no-hitter in the fifth inning will go in the books as a no-hitter are astronomical against. So I like my chances of jinxing it by mentioning it, and when I do I really like getting blamed for the poor guy missing out on his bid for immortality.

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That's right. I jinxed the no-no. I have that power. Give me pie.

But my motive is also -- and if you repeat this I'll deny it -- a little bit altruistic. I genuinely want my pals to not miss the excitement.

There's nothing in sports quite like a no-hitter. Here it is, quiet little Thursday afternoon with a handful of day games going on. There's a little thrum of excitement because this is opening week, but this same thing can happen in the dog days of summer. So we wander over to check the scores in whatever our favored way is and -- whoa! Guy's throwing a perfect game in Cincinnati! Hey Mikey!

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No other sport has this, the ability of a single performance to suddenly turn an ordinary game into one that has the intensity of a playoff game, even a Game 7. There are great performances in every sport, obviously, but they're not quite the same.

Football's disqualified because every game is a big game, an event. That's not a knock. The timing of football is a big part of its genius. But you don't get that thing of a sleepy game suddenly transforming. There are no sleepy games, at least in the big leagues.

In basketball, hockey and soccer you might get a guy scoring a lot, but high-scoring games don't have the mythical qualities of a no-hitter. They're not as rare, and there's not the same "Will he do it?" feeling. Will he do what? Score 70 points, or five goals? Maybe, and that would be a lot, but so what? Seventy is a hell of a lot of points, but so is, say, 63.

The clear goal of staying on zero is what's missing. So maybe a goalie on a shutout streak, but baseball has those too.

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Also, at least in basketball, a player scoring an outrageous number of points is often the result of his playing on a flawed team. Why would a guy who has four good teammates have to score 70 points? Contrast that with a no-hitter, which usually requires a couple of good plays in the field by the pitcher's teammates.

No, nothing like a no-hitter, nothing like anything close to a no-hitter. Cueto didn't get his Thursday but it was fun while it lasted. And the next time it happens, I'm going to try to jinx that one too.

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The Final Four [PERMALINK]

This year's Final Four represents the triumph of the overdog, at last a victory for those of us who like to see the powerful get their way.

For the first time ever, all four teams in the semifinals are No. 1 seeds. But it gets better. In both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today preseason polls, the top four were, in order, North Carolina, UCLA, Memphis and Kansas.

Your Final Four: UCLA vs. Memphis at 6:07 p.m. EDT Saturday, Kansas vs. North Carolina at 8:47.

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There are no interlopers, no plucky underdogs, no teams on hot streaks, except that these four have been hot since Thanksgiving. None has lost more than three games out of 38 this season. None lost two games in a row. Kansas is the only one of the four that lost two games in the same month. All of them won their conference and their conference tournament.

It wouldn't be any fun if the NCAA Tournament spit up a Final Four like this every year, but since it doesn't, this one sure is fun. We've had our usual array of upsets and a few fantastic finishes and now we can get down to the business of the four best teams in the country, as determined by just about every way it can be determined, squaring off.

With all four, I've had a moment in the last two weeks of watching them and thinking, "Wow, this is a really good team." There's never been a Final Four where I've thought that about everybody. There's always been a team about which I've thought, "Can they stay this hot?"

All but North Carolina have had their scares -- the Tar Heels struggled a bit against a very good Louisville team in the regional final, but still won by 10 -- but from here on there are no upsets. We don't need them anymore.

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My bracket's a wreck. The team I picked to win it all, Kansas, is still alive but that's true for almost everyone, since most brackets had one of these four at the top. And the rest of my Final Four is dead.

I'm not going to win any pools so I don't have to stick with Kansas to beat North Carolina. I think the Tar Heels are too fast and too good. I also think UCLA will beat Memphis, the dominant big man trumping all of the Tigers' weapons, though I hope I'm wrong.

And while we're at it, if Tiger Woods is playing somewhere, he'll probably win too.

Previous column: Baseball justice

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  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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