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In theory, the last week of September ought to be when Major League Baseball's regular season carries the most weight; in practice, that's only marginally true. By season's end, a smattering of teams already have cemented playoff berths and shifted their focuses to the coming postseason. Many more clubs are just playing out the string.
For most of his career, Nolan Ryan found himself in the latter scenario. He pitched for 27 seasons and logged over 5,000 innings, but only made the playoffs five times. Far more often than not, the final days of the season should have meant nothing to him.
And yet, no player in baseball history arguably did more with that time.
Ryan is a Hall of Famer. He pitched until he was 46. His first and last no-hitters came more than two decades apart from each other. He was a freak of nature in a sport of physical one-percenters, possessing the modern era's most indestructible pitching arm. Still, his most confounding accomplishment may have been his downright eerie dominance during the last week of September.
In four different seasons, Ryan used September 26, 27, 28, and 30 to set three MLB records, record two no-hitters, and take a perfect game into the eighth inning. How to explain it? Better idea: let's just appreciate it, because chances are, we won't see anything like Ryan again.
September 26, 1981. This was Ryan's signature achievement. He entered the day's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers tied with Sandy Koufax for the most career no-hitters, four. Ryan was 34 years old, pitching for the Houston in a rare meaningful contest; the Astros needed a win to remain a game-and-a-half up on the Cincinnati Reds in the National League West.
Ryan fell into a jam in the second inning, walking Steve Garvey with no outs and later advancing him to third on a wild pitch (Garvey already had stolen second). Ryan responded with back-to-back strikeouts and a pop-out. He walked two more in the third, eventually ending the inning on a Dusty Baker groundout. He would not allow a base runner the rest of game. The Astros won 5-0. and Ryan struck out 11 to notch his record-breaking fifth career no-hitter, ending the game on another Baker grounder.
"It's the one thing I wanted," Ryan told the media afterward. "I've had a shot at it for a long time. At my age, I thought I wouldn't get it. I don't have the stamina I used to have ... I'm excited it's finally over with. I'm the only one since Koufax who has had a shot at the record."
September 27, 1973. Almost eight years earlier, Ryan broke a different Koufax record. Pitching for the California Angels, he entered his final start of the season 15 strikeouts shy of Koufax's single-season record of 382. Ryan was facing the Minnesota Twins, whom he had just faced in his previous start, striking out 12.
Ryan allowed the first four batters to reach base, then recovered to strike out the side. He settled down soon after, whiffing a pair in the second and all three hitters he faced in the fourth. He struck out the side yet again in the seventh, giving him 14 Ks. No. 15 came against Steve Brye in the eighth inning. The record did not go down in the ninth; Ryan burned through the order, allowing one single but inducing a pop fly and two fly outs.
However, the game was tied 4-4 and the Angels did not score a run in the bottom of the inning. So Ryan kept toiling, recording a double-play and a pop fly to second base in the tenth inning, followed by a groundout to short and a flyout to center to start the eleventh.
Finally, facing his forty-ninth (!) batter of the afternoon, Ryan struck out Rich Reese to end the inning, making it 383 on the season. Unlike Koufax, Ryan's record came against lineups featuring the designated hitter, which had only been established that season. In a study commemorating the 40th anniversary of Ryan's record season, SABR estimated that he would have struck out 406 batters had he faced NL lineups that featured a pitcher instead of the DH.
September 28, 1974. Next season, same opponent, more history. Ryan's Angels were an abysmal 65-94, and once again facing the Twins. There was nothing to play for, but also no reason to leave anything in reserve. "I think I'll let it all hang out," Ryan told his catcher, Tom Egan, before the game. "What do I have to lose?"
Ryan pitched just as unfettered. The control he found during his fifth no-hitter was absent here. Ryan's first two innings were exclusively comprised of walks or strikeouts, which proved to be a theme: he fanned 15 and issued eight free passes, by far the most in any of his seven career no-hitters, and more than in his first two combined.
"I guess you could say I was wild," he told the Minneapolis Tribune afterward. "My control wasn't any good."
September 30th, 1989. More than a decade later, Ryan's control was impeccable. Now pitching for the Texas Rangers at age 42, he flirted with the only in-game achievement that had eluded him—a perfect game.
Walks were always Ryan's Achilles' heel: up to this point in his career, he had only recorded three no-walk games, and he ultimately retired with a lifetime average of 4.67 per nine innings. But for much of this afternoon against the Angles, in what many speculated might be his final game, Ryan kept his former team off the bases.
Two strikeouts in the third. Two in the fourth. Three in the sixth. Ryan entered the seventh clinging to a 1-0 lead, perfect game intact, with the top of California's order coming up to bat. He induced a fly ball from Devon White to right, then struck out Mark McLemore in six pitches. Three more pitches and the inning was over, after Chili Davis hit a fly to deep center.
Perfection died in the eighth. After Ryan retired cleanup hitter Wally Joyner to lead off the inning, DH Brian Downing smoked a liner on the first pitch of the next at-bat. Dante Bichette immediately followed up with a single to left field. Still, the outing was a success. Ryan completed the game and the shutout, allowing three hits but no walks, cementing the fourth and final no-walk effort of his career. More significantly, his 13 strikeouts on the day bumped his season total to 301. It was Ryan's sixth 300-strikeout season, setting a major league record that Randy Johnson would later tie.
To put that in perspective: Clayton Kershaw is the only current major leaguer with even one such season to his name.
Astonishingly—or, in hindsight, perhaps predictably—Ryan would go on to pitch four more seasons in Texas and strike out 638 more hitters before retiring in 1993. He was one of a kind, a baseball anomaly from start to finish, playing in a timeframe all his own. None of the three records he set in the last week of September are likely to be broken.
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