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04/19/07 1:30 AM ET
Buehrle highlights game's fickle nature
No-hitter brings southpaw full circle in contract year
Don't try to figure out baseball. Don't dare take it for granted. Just enjoy it, and all its unpredictable wonders -- and frights. That point was reinforced Wednesday night, virtually simultaneously 1,750 miles apart. In Chicago, Mark Buehrle, a perfect mess for more than a year, was almost perfect in no-hitting the Texas Rangers. Judging by the left-hander's protracted struggles, he was less likely to keep a team without a hit Wednesday night than Sanjaya was to hit a note any night. And at the approximate moment when Buehrle got Gerald Laird to roll out to third baseman Joe Crede for the 27th out at U.S. Cellular Field, Felix Hernandez was walking off Safeco Field's mound dangling a sore right elbow. In his prior start, the 21-year-old Hernandez was the one who had looked unhittable, and indestructible, holding the Boston Red Sox hitless for the first seven innings of an overpowering shutout. But there was Buehrle a week later, turning the tables on fate by throwing a major switch on a career that appeared to be spiraling downward. "I can't believe I did it," were Buehrle's first words after sealing the White Sox's first no-hitter in 16 years. Welcome to the club, Mark. The undisputed ace of the world champions in 2005, when he had a 16-8 record with a 3.12 ERA, Buehrle had watched his record dip to 12-13 and his ERA shoot to 4.99 in 2006. Then he went into a slump, staggering through a Spring Training that had most White Sox fans shielding their eyes whenever he took the mound. For many, the start of the regular season brings a reprieve. For Buehrle, it brought pain: In the second inning of his first start he was shelled from the mound by a line drive off his pitching forearm. And through all that, he had to put up with the discourse swirling around his contract status, the daily buzz of being a veteran entering the last season of his contract. Chicago general manager Ken Williams hadn't been too enthusiastic about discussing a new contract for the 28-year-old lefty, whose recent track record appeared to justify the caution. Now what? For openers, Williams led the reception committee for Buehrle in the clubhouse afterwards. A guy brushes off one of the deepest offensive lineups in baseball, he instantly again becomes hot property. He faces only the minimum 27 men -- promptly picking off the only one he walks, Sammy Sosa -- and is thrust back into the limelight. Sure, it was a pitchers' night, 40 degrees and the Windy City living up to its nickname. But this nascent season has had a lot of nights like that, and we haven't seen anyone else bordering perfection. "Never in a million years did I think I'd be able to have this happen," Buehrle said. "I don't know if it's really sunk in yet." So, in one night, he morphed from the guy who had been rocked and reeled for a year back into the one who had won 81 games in a six-year span through 2005. From having grown uncertain about its former lead pitcher, Chicago again knows much about him. It knows that Buehrle is convincingly back on his game, because the no-hitter wasn't an aberration -- say, like the White Sox's most recent ones by Joe Cowley and Wilson Alvarez -- but an exclamation point. Buehrle had been on the upswing for a while, the liner-abridged opening start having come between a strong preseason farewell in Atlanta and a start against Oakland in which he retired 20 of the last 22 men he faced. That's right, if you're doing the math, Buehrle has retired 47 of the last 50 men he has faced. Chicago also knows he can still focus unlike anyone else when sniffing a significant accomplishment. That was on display in the '05 postseason, and on Wednesday night, when, other than the fifth-inning walk to Sosa on a 3-and-1 pitch, he had only two three-ball counts. And we all know he certainly is not superstitious. In typical lefty fashion, he flaunted the time-honored convention of avoiding any mention of a no-hitter in progress, for fear of jinxing it. Buehrle had no problem discussing the elephant in the ballpark. In the middle of the game, he approached several teammates on the bench and said, "You know, I got a no-hitter going." Maybe he was aware that tight lips had done no good last season. Seventeen times, pitchers carried no-hitters into the seventh inning, presumably unmentioned but still doomed, before Florida rookie Anibal Sanchez finally bagged the season's only no-no on Sept. 6. So a no-hitter apparently is just like a prospective new contract. It's all just idle talk, until it actually happens. For Buehrle, the ball used for Wednesday night's final out is a keeper. For the White Sox, Buehrle may be a keeper, too.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.