Programming note: Watch the re-air of Jonathan Sanchez's no-hitter against the San Diego Padres tonight at 8 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.
There's nothing quite like the anticipation that builds in a ballpark during a no-hitter, the tension in every chest as those final innings tick down, the simultaneous release from a pitcher, his teammates and 40,000 strangers when the 27th out is made. No matter the team's record or the pitcher's background, it is a special day, in part because it so often comes out of nowhere.
For the Giants, Tim Lincecum's two no-hitters were pitched far from the peak of his powers. He never no-hit an opponent during his Cy Young days, but twice did it when a diminished fastball relegated him to the back of the rotation. A year after Lincecum's second one, Chris Heston no-hit the Mets in the middle of what would be his only season in a big league rotation.
Madison Bumgarner never pitched a no-hitter for the Giants, but Matt Moore came within an out of one, and Yusmeiro Petit was a few inches from a perfect game.
Those historic games appear out of nowhere, and Jonathan Sanchez's no-hitter in 2009 was as unexpected as it gets.
Sanchez, then 26, struggled so much with his command in the first half of that year that Ryan Sadowski replaced him in the rotation near the end of June. Sanchez was furious. He didn't consider himself a reliever, but he had been unable to find clarity on the mound that season. His mind was filled with thoughts that the Giants, an up-and-coming team, would send him back to Triple-A at any moment.
"I was pitching with that in my mind all the time," Sanchez told Amy Gutierrez of NBC Sports Bay Area. "I never want to be in the bullpen. I was kind of mad they put me in the bullpen."
Life as a reliever would be short-lived. The lefty made two scoreless relief appearances before Bruce Bochy and Dave Righetti called him into the office. Randy Johnson had injured his shoulder and Sanchez would be plugged back into the rotation on July 10 against the Padres.
Sanchez struck out 11 while no-hitting the Padres that night. For a while, a no-hitter of the Padres became pretty common around the organization, but when Sanchez got that 27th out, he became the first Giant to complete a no-hitter since John Montefusco in 1976. The Giants would go on to have a no-hitter or perfect game in four consecutive seasons, but Sanchez's was just the 13th in franchise history at the time. During an interview this week with Gutierrez, Sanchez said he's still not sure what clicked that night.
"I went out there, and I don't know what happened," he said. "I really don't know what I did out there. I still don't know what happened."
Sanchez said Bochy and Righetti had told him he would get about 60 pitches in his return to the rotation. He took the mound with a mindset to go pitch by pitch, inning by inning. He wanted to challenge every hitter.
"I passed my 60 pitches and they didn't know what to do," he recalled. "They said, we can't get him out. Let him pitch until he gives up a hit, and that never happened."
The no-hitter was an early sign of what was to come for the organization. The Giants would win the World Series the next year, with Sanchez playing a key role. There would be two more titles after that, and a string of historic nights in the regular season.
But at the time, Sanchez wasn't thinking far down the line. He was simply pitching angry, trying to prove that he deserved a rotation spot. He felt the situation was so dire that he had called his father, Sigredo, and told him to take some time off work and fly to San Francisco. Sigredo Sanchez had seen his son pitch in the big leagues just once before. He was hesitant to make the trip, but his son needed a familiar face.
"We sat down the night before and started talking," Jonathan Sanchez said. "I think he gave me the strength to be out there and pitch and be more brave and do what I had to do to pitch a great game for Giants fans and us."