Great baseball doesn't usually happen in April. Players are still rusty from a long offseason, teams are incorporating new free agents, prospects, or managers, and nasty weather drives down everyone's performance.
But the first three weeks of the 2010 MLB season has included enough Instant Classics to render that trend obsolete. From no-hitters and record blowouts to a scoreless marathon that threatened to go on forever, there have been enough baseball gems in this first month to fill a full season.
So which games were very good, and which were truly epic? Here is the sliding scale of baseball awesomeness in 2010 (so far).
LEVEL I: EYE-CATCHINGINGLY IMPRESSIVE
Or as it's otherwise known, the "near no-hitters" section...
April 10: New York Yankees 10, Tampa Bay Rays 0 Yankee ace C.C. Sabathia overpowered the Tampa lineup through seven no-hit innings, presenting manager Joe Girardi with an agonizing decision: let Sabathia try for his first no-hitter even though his pitch count was well over 100, or protect his star pitcher and deny him a chance at history. Girardi's dilemma was resolved for him when Rays' catcher Kelly Shoppach singled with two outs in the eighth to break up the no-hitter and send Girardi racing to mound to send a tired Sabathia to the showers.
April 13: Toronto Blue Jays 4, Chicago White Sox 2 Unheralded lefty Ricky Romero shut down the White Sox for seven innings and seemed unhittable. Just six outs from completing the first no-hitter in Blue Jays' history, Romero hung a changeup to former teammate Alex Rios, who smashed a home run to end the no-hitter, the shutout, and a fan base's dream finally celebrating a no-no. Rios' homer was Chicago's only hit of the game, as the center fielder extracted a small measure of revenge on the team that unceremoniously cut him last summer.
April 21: Yankees 3, Oakland Athletics 1 Same uniform, different number. Phil Hughes followed in Sabathia's footsteps and became the second Yankee in two weeks to take a no-hitter into the eighth inning. This time, the fateful hit came right under Hughes' nose--literally. After a ground ball from Oakland's Eric Chavez ricocheted off Hughes' forearm and bounced back toward home plate, the young pitcher searched vainly for the ball as it lay three feet in front of him. By the time Hughes realized his mistake, Chavez was on first base with a single, and the no-hitter was over. After the game, a frustrated Hughes lamented: "To have it end that way is kind of a bummer."
LEVEL 2: ENDURINGLY GREAT
A.k.a. the "transcendent performances" section...
April 17: Colorado Rockies 4, Atlanta Braves 0 Sabathia, Romero and Hughes joined a cast of thousands who have flirted with a no-hitter. Ubaldo Jimenez entered a far more select group when he actually finished one off. The Colorado flamethrower overpowered the Braves' lineup on his way to the first no-no in Rockies history. Even avid baseball fans might be thinking: Ubaldo who? But the performance by the 26-year old from the Dominican Republic was no fluke; Jimenez is 4-0 with an 0.95 ERA so far this season.
April 22: Milwaukee Brewers 20, Pittsburgh Pirates 0 Getting swept is never good. Getting swept by a combined score of 36-1 over three games is humiliating. But getting swept 36-1 and losing the final game by 20 runs pushes the boundaries of the English language. Milwaukee pounded out 25 hits and four home runs, destroying one Pittsburgh pitcher after another in the most lopsided loss in the Pirate's 124-year history. Tarnishing the Brewers' win was their decision to bring in closer Trevor Hoffman in the final inning. I don't care that Hoffman has struggled this season and Brewers wanted to get him some low-pressure action. When you bring in baseball's all-time save leader to close out a 20-0 game, it's gamesmanship, pure and simple.
LEVEL 3: SUBLIME
As in "unforgettable to those who watched"
April 17: New York Mets 2, St. Louis Cardinals 1 (20 innings) After 18 innings--the equivalent of two full games--neither team had scored a run. In a perfect storm of quality pitching and abysmal hitting, the Mets and Cardinals were locked in a literal zero-sum game, stranding a combined 36 runners on base as the contest wore on. After seventeen innings and almost six hours, the Cardinals were out of pitchers, so they turned to shortstop Felipe Lopez, who shut down the Mets in the 18th and proved that on this night, any yeoman could succeed on the mound.
The Mets finally broke through in the 19th against the Cardinals' second converted pitcher, center fielder Joe Mather. St. Louis promptly scored a run of their own to tie the score at 1, and the weary teams dragged on. Finally, New York shortstop Jose Reyes--one of three Mets to finish the game 0-7 at the plate--hit a sacrifice fly to score the winning run in the 20th.
The six-hour-and-53-minute marathon affair was the longest scoreless game in the majors since 1989. It's the young baseball season's enduring Instant Classic.
Provided anyone has the stamina to watch it all the way through.