J.A. Happ was a motivated man on Friday night. The Twins were in an ugly spiral, he hadn't yet made much of an impression on his new team, and yeah, he might have been a little annoyed when Rocco Baldelli skipped his turn in the rotation during the team's COVID-19-ruined road trip.
So when the 38-year-old lefthander found himself approaching history against the Pirates, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning, he didn't want to hear about his pitch count.
"I don't care what it takes. There's a zero up there, I'm going, and you'd be hard-pressed to get me off the mound," Happ said. "My plan was to make it happen."
It didn't. Jacob Stallings whistled a one-out double down the left-field line, spoiling Happ's shot at the first no-hitter in Target Field history.
But after one of the worst road trips in memory, after dropping nine of 10 games and owning the worst record in the American League, and after losing a half-dozen players to COVID quarantines, a one-hit, skid-snapping 2-0 victory was just as worthy of celebration.
Willians Astudillo hit a solo home run on a pitch nearly a foot above the strike zone, and Jake Cave broke an 0-for-16 slump by hitting a home run that just reached the flowerpots in left field. But the night belonged to Happ.
"It was a wonderful night," Baldelli said after the Twins' first victory in eight days. "He thew the hell out of the ball for us, at a time when we will definitely take it with open arms."
Baldelli was so impressed, in fact, that the manager — who removed Jose Berrios in the second game of the season after six no-hit innings (and 84 pitches) in Milwaukee — wasn't planning to remove Happ as long as he kept that zero on the scoreboard.
"We were going to let J.A. pitch. I mean, he was so efficient," Baldelli said of Happ, who surrendered Stallings' double with his 95th and final pitch, then gave way to Tyler Duffey and Taylor Rogers to complete the 19th one-hitter in Twins history. "You don't get too many games where there's a no-hitter in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning. … J.A. was throwing the kind of game where he could easily have finished it if there happened to be no baserunners. But hit or not, that's just a superb game from him."
On a night of the improbable — home runs from eighth- and ninth-place hitters, for instance, or the fact Stallings was in an 0-for-19 drought when he ruined Happ's masterpiece — it was the lefthander's hardly overwhelming yet unwaveringly excellent pitching that was the most unlikely. Happ hadn't pitched in 10 days due to the Twins' wreck of a road trip, and hadn't finished five innings in his first two starts for Minnesota.
His mix of 90-mile-per-hour fastballs and 85-mile-per-hour sliders were total mysteries Friday, though. Happ, whose 15-year major league career includes two months with Pittsburgh in 2015, struck out only three of the 25 batters he faced, and he walked Erik Gonzalez and Stallings in the second inning, his only brush with danger.
But he was the master of soft contact, too. Seven ground balls were turned into outs, only one particularly difficult. Eleven fly balls and a popup, none especially deep and only a couple well-struck, were easily disposed of. Happ retired 17 consecutive batters before Stallings' heartbreaker, and admitted that pitching the sixth no-hitter in Twins' history was on his mind — especially after an apparent hit by Wilmer Difo, on a bouncer that Happ kicked and then threw away, was overturned by umpire Jose Navas, who ruled Difo had interfered by running outside the baseline.
"It was fun. You start feeling the crowd a little bit. They're cheering a little bit more after each out," Happ said. "Oh man, that would be right up there [among his career highlights]. That would have been great."