TORONTO – In the annals of no-hitter superstition, it’s hard to imagine a more uncomfortable sacrifice than the one Detroit catcher Alex Avila made for his pitcher Saturday afternoon at the Rogers Centre. In the sixth inning, as Justin Verlander was throwing a perfect game, Avila realized he had to use the bathroom.
“But I was too afraid to go,” Avila admitted.
Not until some 10 minutes after the Tigers’ 9-0 win over Toronto was finished, after Verlander had completed his second no-hitter, after the team had mobbed the pitcher on the mound and doused him with a cooler of water and sprayed him with beer back in the clubhouse, after the buzz and din of a transcendent performance had faded a bit, did Avila finally get to relieve himself.
Sometimes life’s necessities have to wait, especially when greatness is around the corner. These are the details that go into the making of a no-hitter. Some are obvious, like the nifty, back handed stab shortstop Jhonny Peralta made on a one-hopper to save a hit in the seventh; and some are not, like Avila’s decision to block out the discomfort and stay in the moment.
Baseball protocol dictates that everything must stay the same as the tension of a no-hit attempt builds. Verlander was so loose, however, that he initiated conversation himself, engaging his teammates from time to time.
He credited his previous no-hitter.
“Obviously, the adrenaline wasn’t quite as high (this time),” he said.
That worked in his favor. As the seventh inning approached and Verlander still hadn’t given up a hit – or a walk – he began focusing on his opportunity.
As the pressure mounted, Verlander simply made his pitches. Throwing harder and harder. Locating a 100 mph fastball.
He began the game intent on throwing his fastball between 92-94 instead of overthrowing. He wanted to establish a rhythm. And he wanted to use his off-speed stuff. Despite not having his best curveball, Verlander mixed a slider with a change-up to keep Toronto’s hitters off balance.
So by the time the seventh rolled around and the stadium began to fill with the electric anticipation of a no-hitter, Verlander turned the extra amps into extra velocity without losing control. The combination was nasty.
“He used the curveball against right-handers, change-up against left-handers,” said Toronto manager John Farrell.
“He was unbelievable today,” Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia said. “Anytime when your 106th pitch is hitting 100 – I would say that’s pretty ridiculous stuff.”
It was Arencibia who ruined Verlander’s perfect-game bid. In the bottom of the eighth inning, with one out and the crowd on its feet, the promising young Blue Jay ripped a bullet down the left-field line. He hit it so hard that Verlander didn’t initially react at first, until he saw a puff of dirt billow up just past third base and he realized the ball landed just foul.
Arencibia eventually worked the count full, fouled off another pitch and dared Verlander to throw a fastball for a strike. He tried, but he missed on the outside corner.
The stadium crowd deflated for a moment. Verlander stepped off the back of the mound, collected himself and wondered why the umpire couldn’t have relented to the moment.
“Come on, give me a break,” he said he thought to himself. “You could have called that (a strike).”
Verlander grinned as he recounted this.
“No,” he quickly confessed, “I knew it was a ball. I saw (the umpire) look at me as soon as he called it. He wanted to see my reaction. (But) there was nothing for me to say or do.”
Between innings, after Verlander quickly refocused and induced a double-play grounder to get out of the eighth, Verlander tried to get the umpire’s attention.
“He couldn’t hear me,” he joked. “I wanted to give him a hard time.”
Verlander took the mound for the final time on the afternoon with the crowd on its feet again.
He hit 100 mph on the radar as he faced designated hitter David Cooper, second baseman John McDonald and finally Rajai Davis. Pop up. Slow grounder. Strikeout.
Verlander casually pumped his fist. Avila raced to hug him. His teammates followed.
In the clubhouse after the game, Verlander called his girlfriend and planned on calling his mom. Someone had set out a bottle of champagne. He grabbed the bottle along with a couple of paper cups and set out to find his catcher.