The culminating minutes of Alec Mills’ no-hitter are hazy for the right-hander. He plans to watch video of the final out because he’s not sure how he reacted. Did he even really celebrate?
But there’s one moment that clicked into focus: Javier Báez screaming after fielding the ground ball, before throwing to first for the out.
“Talk about confidence,” Mills said.
Mills threw the first no-hitter of his career and the 16th in franchise history, as the Cubs pummeled the Brewers 12-0 Sunday at Miller Park. It was the second no-hitter of the year, after White Sox right-hander Lucas Giolito accomplished the feat less than three weeks ago.
“I don't really know what to say,” Mills said after the game. “It’s kind of hitting me now. It’s just very overwhelming. Obviously a once in a lifetime type of thing. And I'll always remember it, and just look back and be thankful.”
In retrospect, a conversation between Mills and Kyle Hendricks Saturday night foreshadowed Mills’ performance the next day.
The pair of crafty right-handers have a similar pitching style, and Mills often talks about how much he enjoys and learns watching Hendricks pitch.
The way Mills tells it, after Hendricks held the Brewers to two runs in a 4-2 Cubs victory Saturday, Mills joked, “Alright, I'm going to beat you tomorrow.”
“Alright, do it,” Hendricks said.
Mills wasn’t actually feeling his best early in the Sunday afternoon game. He was having trouble getting his legs moving, the ball didn’t feel good coming out of his hand, and he had no fans in the stands to give him an extra jolt.
As Mills struggled to locate his four-seam fastball in the zone, catcher Victor Caratini said they decided to rely more heavily on the sinker and curveball.
“The feel for the curveball was evident,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “and him dropping it in multiple times, and then the fastball off that just looked really electric, mix in some change ups, just really in control.”
Mills was so dominant with that combination that by the sixth inning, Ross was starting to think about pulling some of the Cubs’ everyday starters. With a comfortable lead and a day off on Monday, it was an opportune time to get them extra rest.
When Ross checked in with Jason Heyward, the right fielder told him, as Ross put it, “he was riding with Millsy.”
Heyward didn’t want to come out until Mills did.
“You get that feedback from the players,” Ross said, “and that just warms your heart and tells you what a professional group we have, and how much they care about one another.”
By the late innings, Mills’ heart was racing. He said he went back to the locker room between the eighth and ninth.
“I had to take a lot of deep breaths,” he said, “and calm myself down and try to get into a good mindset to go out and attack.”
His composed expression didn’t betray any of that as he took the mound for the final inning. Mills induced a pop-up in foul territory from Jacob Nottingham for the first out. Then, he faced two hitters he hadn’t seen all night, Tyrone Taylor and Jace Peterson.
Over at shortstop, Báez kept looking into the dugout for directions from bench coach Andy Green. Báez didn’t have a card on positioning for Taylor or Peterson.
Behind the plate, Caratini was doing his best to not think about the no-hitter.
“Normally when you try to think about it, is when something bad could happen,” Caratini said through an interpreter. “And you can lose it.”
Caratini instead focused on the scouting reports on Taylor and Peterson. He didn’t want them to come out too aggressive.
Caratini called a curveball for a first-pitch strike against Taylor, laying the groundwork for what would become a strikeout.
Then, Mills got Peterson to hit a ground ball up the middle. Báez was ready and waiting.
“I just wanted the ball hit to me,” Báez said of shouting as he set his feet to throw.
When the ball hit Anthony Rizzo’s glove at first base, Mills did celebrate. He clapped once and put his hands over his head. Then, Caratini greeted him at the edge of the mound with a high five and hug. The rest of his teammates weren’t far behind, running in from the field and the dugout.
After the game, they waited for Mills again in the clubhouse. Second baseman Jason Kipnis took a video of the pitcher’s phone, Mills said, as a constant stream of calls and text messages lit up the screen.
“He took a little bit to get to the clubhouse because of all the interviews,” Báez said, “But we were ready for him.”
More cheers, more hugs.
“Obviously having an audience there to watch would have been something special,” Mills said, “but at the same time, the guys I wanted there celebrating with me were still there.”