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Another no-no for Nomo

By the fourth inning, a line was forming about 20 yards from the Orioles' dugout just outside the clubhouse video room. The visitors were frantic to uncover the mystery of Hideo Nomo.

They never learned.

In his debut for a Boston Red Sox team torn asunder by injuries and intrigue since spring training, Nomo pitched the first no-hitter in Camden Yards history and the first in 36 years for his angst-ridden franchise. The Japanese contortionist and his disappearing forkball beat the Orioles, 3-0, before a crowd of 35,602 that by night's end cheered his every trick.

The no-hitter was the fifth thrown against the Orioles and the first since the Chicago White Sox's Wilson Alvarez victimized them in his second major-league appearance on Aug. 11, 1991, at Memorial Stadium. Only four days into a season defined by a larger strike zone, the game witnessed its first no-hitter since University of Maryland alum Eric Milton performed the feat for the Minnesota Twins against the Anaheim Angels on Sept. 11, 1999.

For the Red Sox, Nomo's gem was the first since Dave Morehead no-hit the Cleveland Indians on Sept. 16, 1965, and the 15th in franchise history.

"It was a nightmare," said Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston, victimized for three of Nomo's 11 strikeouts. "I had some great swings at pitches I thought I couldn't miss. But it wasn't there. I felt even better at the plate today than Monday," when he went 3-for-4, "but I never got it."

Nomo, just the second Japanese player to make it to the major leagues when he joined the Dodgers in 1995, signed a one-year, $4.5 million contract last winter. The pitching-thin Orioles, uncertain about Nomo's durability, were among the clubs that passed on him. Nomo then emerged from a winless spring to throw the second no-hitter of his career at a lineup that never adjusted to his vanishing split-finger pitch or less-than-overpowering fastball.

"Guys were coming up here [to the video room] to see what was happening," said manager Mike Hargrove. "Everybody was swinging ahead of his fastball."

The Orioles never could time Nomo. The harder they swung, the more frustrated they became.

"He doesn't throw the split very hard, so when it stays straight it still serves as a changeup," said first baseman David Segui, the only Oriole in last night's lineup with solid career numbers (5-for-13) against Nomo.

"The guy threw a no-hitter. He mixed it up pretty good," said Sidney Ponson, who allowed only four hits in 7 1/3 innings as the Orioles' starter last night. "I'm pretty happy, but we lost, so I'm happy and sad."

Nomo spoke flatly afterward, just as he had appeared to be less excited than the teammates who jumped around him after left fielder Troy O'Leary squeezed Delino DeShields' fly ball for the final out.

Asked how he would celebrate, Nomo said dryly, "I haven't thought about that yet."

Just as Nomo sometimes defies translation, his unorthodox delivery challenges hitters' patience. The former National League Rookie of the Year torques his body so that his arms extend well behind his head. He pauses at the top of his delivery, then leaves a hitter guessing on his release point. The arm action on his fastball and forkball is virtually identical, causing hitters to frequently swing at bouncing pitches while freezing at fastballs.

"It's not his motion as much as his mix," Segui said. "He spotted his split and fastball very well in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.

"Every sixth hitter or so he would let a hitter get away from him, but then he would get right back into it," Hargrove said.

Of Nomo's 11 strikeouts, eight came in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. He appeared to benefit from plate umpire Eric Cooper's generous strike zone, especially on strikeouts of Brady Anderson and DeShields, and admitted the expanded strike zone mandated this season by Major League Baseball played a factor in his performance.

"[Cooper] called some pitches for us that I thought were balls. He called some pitches for them," Ponson said. "It's a human game and he's a human being."

Crew chief Jerry Crawford made Cooper unavailable to comment after the game.

Nomo walked three and was hurt by one error. He benefited in the ninth inning from second baseman Mike Lansing's run-and-roll catch of Mike Bordick's pop fly into shallow center field. He then retired DeShields on a routine fly to left field as his teammates swarmed him and Camden Yards stood in appreciation.

"I felt pretty good throughout the game, as I was going into the ninth inning," Nomo said through interpreter Chang Lee. "I wasn't really nervous but I had the same thought throughout the game. I wasn't thinking too much. I trusted the catcher to follow his lead."

"I didn't second-guess anything we did," said catcher Jason Varitek. "We had a good mix. We kept hitters off-balance. We got ahead. We got a few high strikes called but it's an ongoing adjustment for everyone."

The fourth pitcher to throw no-hitters in both leagues, Nomo had no-hit the Colorado Rockies while with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sept. 17, 1996, after a two-hour delay because of cold. Last night's game was delayed 43 minutes by a power outage that darkened the ballpark and the B&O warehouse. Unlike his previous delayed masterpiece Nomo worked last night from the windup as well as the stretch. After his previous no-hitter, Nomo bounced to the New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers and Detroit Tigers and was briefly mentioned as a trade possibility for the Orioles in between.

Last night, Nomo's career came full circle at the expense of Ponson, whose early dominance overshadowed Nomo for four innings.

Red Sox first baseman Brian Daubach beat Ponson with a pair of home runs, an opposite-field, two-run shot in the third and a bases-empty homer wrapped around the right-field foul pole in the eighth inning.

The Orioles had no answer. The players who had kept Nomo winless against them in four previous starts are gone. Last night's starting lineup entered a collective 8-for-51 (.157) against Nomo and exited 8-for-78 (.103).

Minus Segui, who had reached Nomo for two home runs in 13 previous at-bats, the rest of the lineup began 3-for-38 (.079).

Nomo showed Segui no favoritism this time. He forced him into groundouts his first two at-bats and turned his bat into kindling to end the fourth inning. The play actually represented the only early challenge to Nomo's no-hitter as it forced Stynes to range behind the second-base bag and flip to second for a force of DeShields. Segui struck out to end the seventh.

Ponson arrived in overpowering form. He struck out two in the first inning, including Red Sox center fielder Carl Everett on the front end of an inning-ending double play. On his way to 10 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings, Ponson struck out the side in the second, including a devastating 3-2 curveball that chased designated hitter Manny Ramirez for the first out.

After blowing away five of his first six hitters faced, Ponson was reached for a scorching grounder by Sean Hillenbrand that went through third baseman Cal Ripken's legs. Ripken absorbed the error when the grounder failed to come up. Daubach then jumped Ponson's first pitch -- a thigh-high fastball that tailed toward the outside corner -- and drove it the opposite way two rows deep into the left-field seats.

One mistake shouldn't doom a pitcher to a loss, especially when he's as dominant as Ponson appeared in last night's early innings. But Nomo offered the Orioles no room to exploit him.

The Orioles continued to press the game on the bases with mixed results. Ripken would be the only runner through six innings to take second base when he advanced on a second-inning wild pitch. Segui was less successful, getting thrown out when trying to duplicate Ripken's feat in the fourth.

The chilled Camden Yards crowd didn't take much longer to catch on to what was happening. By the sixth inning, they were cheering Nomo as he plowed through the most dangerous part of the Orioles' lineup. Even as several protested called strikes while others rewound a video of his mastery, a run at history proved more compelling.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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