7/20/2014 10:25 P.M. ET
Despaigne shows the stuff of legends
Near no-hitter evokes memories of countrymen Tiant, Cuellar and El Duque
By Phil Rogers / MLB.com
Here's hoping Orlando Hernandez was somewhere near a television set watching the Mets-Padres game on Sunday afternoon.
If El Duque was watching, he would have seen a lot of himself in Odrisamer Despaigne, who flirted with a no-hitter in his fifth career start. The Padres' rookie from Cuba delivered 7 2/3 innings of the same kind of magic that allowed Hernandez to carve out his own historic niche with the Yankees and then the White Sox.
A bargain signing for since-dismissed San Diego GM Josh Byrnes, Despaigne doesn't have the type of big arm that generates big contracts. But he's got the same kind of gift that made countrymen Mike Cuellar, Luis Tiant and Hernandez legends.
You couldn't watch Despaigne's near no-hitter against the Mets -- which would have been the first in the 7,264-game history of the Padres -- without coming away thinking this is a guy destined for a significant career in the Major Leagues.
You certainly wouldn't want to have been one of the scouts who told their bosses that this is a guy with average tools whose ceiling was as a long reliever or fifth starter -- that was the consensus coming out of his tryouts in Arizona last February. Despaigne reminds us that pitching is still at least as much of an art as a science, and that radar guns only tell us one element of a much broader picture.
Just ask Curtis Granderson if it matters that Despaigne's fastball maxes out at 93 mph.
The 27-year-old right-hander faced Granderson in the eighth inning, when he was within five outs of a no-hitter. Despaigne started Granderson out with a 90-mph fastball, and then he toyed with him like a three-card Monte dealer. No two of the seven pitches that Despaigne threw in that sequence looked anything like the others, which had a lot to do with how badly the three-time All-Star Granderson was fooled in the end.
Masterfully, Despaigne added and subtracted velocity off the 90-mph heater that Granderson fouled off for strike one. From there, the next six pitches came in with these velocities relative to the pitch before them: minus-17 mph, plus-20, minus-27, plus-25, minus-4 and minus-15. You don't think that messes with a hitters' timing?
Yasmani Grandal, who has caught all of Despaigne's starts, told MLB.com's Corey Brock that even though he calls the pitches, he never really knows what is coming.
"He has two different types of curveballs from two different types of angles," Grandal said. "He has a changeup and also a cutter. I like the fact that the ball is always moving. The hardest thing for me is when I call for a fastball and [I don't know] if he's going to cut it, sink it or come straight with it. I know it's going to have so much movement. It's fun, because he always seems to keep it in the strike zone."
Despaigne didn't have his best control on Sunday, twice hitting batters with pitches and working behind in counts frequently as he tried to keep his no-hit bid going. He loaded the bases in the seventh before sawing off Miguel Tejada, who bounced back to the mound on a 92-mph fastball that rode in one hands.
In that amazing sequence in the eighth, Granderson fouled off a pair of two-strike pitches before getting all tied up trying to check his swing on a 72-mph curveball, which moved Despaigne within four outs of the no-hitter. He got no closer, with Daniel Murphy lining a 92-mph fastball into the left-center gap for an opposite-field double. Despaigne had almost hit him with a 66-mph curveball a couple pitches earlier, and probably regrets not going back to his assortment of junk.
Because David Wright followed Murphy's double with a single to center, Despaigne was left with a no-decision from his 123-pitch effort. He celebrated with his teammates after Seth Smith's infield single in the ninth inning gave San Diego a 2-1 walk-off win, but it wasn't the wild celebration that he and the Padres' fans were dreaming of when he got within four outs of making history.
Despaigne willl be sore on Monday, but it's going to be a very good kind of sore. His career has been a steady ascension from obscurity, and who knows where he will go from this fast start?
Despaigne was working in the bullpen for Havana's Industriales when they won a championship in 2006. He was in the rotation when they won again in 2010 and earned a spot onto Cuba's World Baseball Classic team in 2013. Despaigne traveled to Japan for the event, but he wasn't one of the 12 pitchers who worked in the six games that mattered. He pitched only in an exhibition game against the Hanshin Tigers.
If Despaigne's own country couldn't recognize his potential, is it fair to hold scouts from Major League teams accountable for allowing the Padres to land him for a mere $1 million in May?
Despaigne worked only 31 1/3 innings in seven Minor League outings before the Padres promoted him. In his five big league starts, he is 2-1 with a 1.31 ERA.
Some will say it's only a matter of time until hitters figure Despaigne out, and to a certain degree that's bound to be right. No one's good enough to maintain a 1.31 ERA, and if anyone was, it wouldn't be a guy with a ratio of 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
Despaigne throws strikes and keeps hitters off balance. He does that well, which is how he has produced a .175 opponents' batting average and an 0.90 WHIP.
There's also no doubting that Petco Park is helping Despaigne. Three of his five starts have been in that pitcher's paradise, and in those starts, he's allowed only nine hits in 20 1/3 innings. After surviving the recent boom for Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes and other hitters in Cuba, he is no doubt delighting in the North American hitting drought.
But be careful about saying these first five starts are a fluke. Like El Duque, Despaigne throws a collection of pitches from a variety of arm angles, and it is a pleasure to watch him work -- unless, of course, you are watching from the other dugout.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.