The buzz in the crowd began in earnest with one out in the bottom of the 8th inning. Up until then we had been talking about how good Hamels looked, or maybe how bad Cub hitters looked.
In the bottom of the 7th Hamels struck out the side, striking out 6 Cubs in 2 innings. But still, there were 2 innings to go, and how many times have you seen a pitcher go 7 without giving up a hit, only to see his bid for a no-hitter go by the wayside in the 8th or 9th?
But then Phillies center fielder Obudel Herrera took a very improbable route -- back to the warning track and then due west toward left field -- to catch a deep fly ball off the bat of Cubs catcher David Ross, sliding along the warning track, just in front of the ivy, and raising a billowing cloud of rust-red-brown dust.
That's when you knew it was possible. Because most no-hitters in one's memory are highlighted by spectacular catches, usually in the outfield, that keep the pitcher's hopes alive. And that's when the crowd sensed that they may indeed be witnessing something special. The tone shifted. The volume rose. Our collective pulse quickened.
I probably wouldn't have gone to this game. But an old friend from the Ridgeland/Harvey/Division neighborhood in Oak Park emailed saying he would be visiting Chicago from his home on Long Island, New York, with a whole crew of kids and friends and they had an extra ticket and would I like to join them.
Of course I would! We met at the Sports Corner at Sheffield and Addison, had a beer or two, and headed across the street to the ballpark. He and I bought our scorecards and were happy that we made it for the first pitch. We noted that it was Hamels vs. Jake Arrieta and fully expected a pitchers duel, anticipating that the Cub ace would dominate a rather weak Phillies team.
Our seats were in the last row at the top of the grandstand. On a hot, humid day the breeze out of the north kept our section positively pleasant.
The Phillies got to Arrieta in the 3rd, scoring 3. By then, the way the Cubs were hitting, or not hitting, 3 runs looked like enough to win, especially with the wind blowing in. And when the Ks and the ground outs began to pile up, we wondered if the Cubs would ever score a run.
And then Herrera made the catch and talk of a no-hitter became serious. The feeling was there. It could happen.
My friend also had two box seats behind home plate. The idea was we would trade places throughout the game so each of us could sit close to the field for a couple of innings. But then several seats in the row became vacant and so we all ventured down to aisle 120 row 9. And that's where we saw Herrera's 8th inning catch.
The Phillies had added 2 runs in the top of the 8th, so it looked hopeless for the Cubs, down 5-0.
We were pulling for Hamels.
Oh sure. It would have been great to see the Cubs come back and win, and that would have made it a great Cubs victory and a memorable game.
But Hamels just looked so good, you couldn't help, with part of your baseball fan heart, but cheer for him. It was love of the game. Appreciation for a great performance.
Love of the game, and being there, in the stands, to witness it all. The entire crowd felt it.
During the bottom of the 9th we all stood, the anticipation palpable throughout the stands. It was eerie. Hamels' arm would reach back and then all talking stopped and there was almost complete silence in the old ballyard as the ball left his hand for the plate. I never saw, or heard, 40,000 people so quiet, holding their collective breath, as the ball approached the hitter.
And then with two outs in the bottom of the 9th, Kris Bryant hit a long drive to deep center. Phillies center fielder Herrera, he of the spectacular 8th inning catch, looked confused. Maybe he lost the ball in the sun.
He fell down.
But then he reached out and caught it, preserving Hamels' masterpiece. Another great catch that could have gone the other way. That's how no-hitters go. You need a couple of great defensive plays to help you along the way.
We stood and clapped and cheered for a long time, until the last Phillies left the field. We had seen history and we loved it.
We each had a sip or two of beer left. We raised our cups.
"To the game," one of us said. "To the game," we all said together.
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