With two outs in the ninth inning on the road against the Cleveland Indians, Dave Stieb must have wondered if his elusive bid for a no-hitter was ever going to come to fruition. Stieb had, of course, taken many no-hit bids into the ninth inning only to lose them in heartbreaking fashion. It had, sadly, become his schtick.
Stieb was great. He made seven All-Star teams, finished in the top seven in Cy Young voting four times and logged 200-plus innings—including a personal and league-best 288 1/3 in 1982—nine times. Stieb's name sits next to Roy Halladay's on the Blue Jays' franchise leaderboard of nearly every meaningful pitching stat. He ranks first in games started, complete games, innings pitched, wins, shutouts, strikeouts, and is second in FanGraphs' version of WAR. The right-hander who came equipped with a devastating slider has his name plastered on the team's Level of Excellence across the facing of the 500 level—an honour that recognizes great individual achievement.
Stieb was a workhorse deserving of praise, but was consistently on the wrong end in his pursuit to enter rarefied air.
But Toronto's ace finally conquered and accomplished something no other Blue Jays pitcher has done. It was 25 years ago yesterday that Stieb recorded the Blue Jays' first and only no-hitter in franchise history in a 3–0 win over Cleveland. He struck out nine and walked four batters in the 123-pitch effort to improve to 17-5 on the season while lowering his ERA to a pristine 2.91.
"Relief and disbelief. Those are the two things I felt," Stieb recently told the Toronto Star when reflecting on his special day. "Then the celebration ensued and it sank in. Wow, it really did happen. It felt good to get that off my back. I was thinking, now I don't have to concern myself with everybody wishing me a no-hitter."
Stieb was one of the best pitchers in baseball at the time, and on that day there was no one better. With Pat Borders behind the plate, Stieb got Jerry Browne to yank a slider to right field and into the glove of Junior Felix. The ball was struck well but Felix was positioned perfectly, needing to take only a few steps backward in order to complete the mission and ensure that much-desired zero under the hit column on the final boxscore. Game over. No-hitter complete. Eruption ensues. History is made.
Stieb had been so close before. In fact, he had previously taken four no-hitters into the ninth inning only to come out on the losing end of the battle. More so, in back-to-back starts in 1988, Stieb had his no-hit bid broken with two outs in the ninth. Recording 26 outs before allowing a hit in consecutive starts is some kind of bad luck.
A year prior to his triumphant day, he also lost a perfect game with two outs in the ninth.
Such is baseball. It's cruel and unpredictable and the wrong bounce can change the narrative in a nanosecond.
On that sunny Sunday afternoon in September, however, in front of 23,000 and change at Cleveland Stadium, Stieb got to write his own script—the one he had penned so many times before without completing the final chapter.
Among the franchise's all-time greats, Stieb embodied those mid-to-late-1980s Blue Jays teams more than anyone. The Blue Jays were good, even among the game's best, but never quite good enough. The team excelled but perpetually came up short prior to winning its first World Series title in 1992.
Stieb's career, however, was at the end of its ropes at that time. Injuries had gotten the best of him, relegating him to under 100 innings pitched for the second consecutive year and forcing him to miss the final two months of the season, including the glory run when Toronto went through Oakland and Atlanta to bring the World Series north of the border for the first time in major league history.
It's a shame Stieb wasn't able to anchor the postseason staff and take the mound for the biggest games in team history. When thinking of the all-time Blue Jays greats, Stieb is among the first names to come to mind.
But Stieb had his moment—one unlike any Blue Jays pitcher has ever experienced.