OAKLAND – It’s been 23 years since a Braves pitcher threw a no-hitter, and Friday night was another reminder of just how difficult it will be to break that drought.
Mike Foltynewicz pitched the game of his young life and was within three outs of throwing the fourth no-hitter in Atlanta Braves history before Oakland’s Matt Olson, a Parkview High graduate, hit a full-count home run to start the ninth inning at Oakland Coliseum.
The no-hit bid and shutout ended on one swing, and Foltynewicz was replaced by Jim Johnson, who gave up a double before striking out the next three batters to finish the Braves’ 3-1 win in a interleague series opener that got far more compelling than expected from this matchup in front of a smallish crowd of 19,286.
“He fouled off some good pitches and I threw some good pitches, but at (the count is) 3-2 and I’ve got to come at you with the fastball, and he’s ready for it,” Foltynewicz said. “Fourth time through the lineup it gets a little tougher, they start to see you a little better. Just got to tip your hat to him. He put the barrel on the ball and put it out of the park.”
Foltynewicz was perfect through four innings and finished with eight strikeouts, four walks and the one hit allowed in eight innings plus one batter. He threw 69 strikes in a career-high 119 pitches.
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“He was focused and he had his mind right, he was making all his pitches,” said Braves second baseman Brandon Phillips, whose single in the two-run eighth proved to be the game-winning RBI. “He looked like a totally different pitcher up there today. He was zoned in, man.”
A crowd that gave Foltynewicz a standing ovation when he walked off the field after giving up the homer to Olson on his 119th and final pitch.
“It was very weird,” Foltynewicz said of the road-crowd reaction. “About the seventh or eighth, on our side (above) the dugout they were getting very loud. I was like, whoa, this is weird, but it was a very cool feeling getting taken out (and getting the ovation) and then after the game. It was a feeling I’ll never forget.”
Olson fouled off three straight pitches, took a borderline pitch for ball 3, then fouled off two more — a fastball and a slider — before homering on the ninth pitch of the at-bat, a 93.8-mph fastball.
“I was just trying to have a good at-bat, the way he was throwing against us,” Olson said. “Hitting a home run to break up the no-hitter was just the cherry on top. … I was seeing him fairly well all night and just missing. He had a lot of life on his fastball.”
Kent Mercker’s no-hitter against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on April 8, 1994, remains the last thrown by a Braves pitcher.
“This game’s all about inches,” Phillips said. “I thought he had strike 3 (on Olson). It would have been nice for him to get that call, especially in that situation, but if I was a hitter I wouldn’t want (him to get) that call either. We thought it was going to happen. He pitched a great damn game, man. I was happy to be behind him.”
Some Braves fans tuned in Friday to see potential Atlanta trade target Sonny Gray pitch for the Athletics, but the best pitcher on the mound this night was the one with the tomahawk already across his chest.
Foltynewicz (6-5) was dominant, the big redhead maintaining 95-97 mph velocity almost until the end after not allowing a runner to reach base until Khris Davis’ leadoff walk in the fifth inning.
The Braves only got two hits and one run in eight innings against Gray, but added two runs in the ninth on RBI singles from Phillips and Matt Kemp.
Until the ninth, the only run in the game came when Johan Camargo led off the Braves’ third inning with a double and scored one out later on a double by fellow rookie Dansby Swanson.
Foltynewicz threw 27 pitches in a two-walk, two-strikeout sixth inning to raise his pitch count to 86, but the needed just eight pitches in a perfect seventh inning that got him back on pace to stay in for the potential no-hitter.
“Couple of times like in the sixth, I think I was getting too quick and my teammates saw that and came out and talked to me, said slow it down a little bit, execute pitches here and there,” he said. “And then I did. It was awesome that teammates were coming out to support me like that. It was a fun night.”
The 25-year-old Illinois native said he’s never thrown a no-hitter at any level of amateur or professional ball. He had a career-high of 112 pitches before Friday, but Snitker said Foltynewicz wasn’t laboring and that he would’ve probably left him in for up to about 135-140 pitches if the no-hitter had been intact.
When Snitker took him out, he had a moment on the mound where he let Foltynewicz know how pleased and happy he was for him.
“Yeah, I’ve been through a lot with that kid last couple of years,” Snitker said. “This is really cool to watch him grown up, and I was just proud of him. I was proud that he went after (Olson) right there. If he gets a hit, he gets a hit.”
Foltynewicz was at 110 pitches after an eighth inning in which he walked the first batter, Rajai Davis, then struck out the next two and got Matt Joyce to line out to left field. He was asked about adrenaline and if he’d felt its effects at any time.
“I didn’t really feel anything until, like the ninth (inning), then my legs were just kind of heavy,” Foltynewicz said, smiling. “t was kind of weird out there in the ninth.”
He never allowed fewer than two hits in any of his previous 51 career starts and had given up 11 hits and eight runs in just 3 1/3 innings three starts ago June 12 at Washington. The Braves have won five consecutive Foltynewicz starts and eight of his past 10, after losing each of his first six this season.
After consecutive walks to No. 9 hitter Franklin Barreto and Joyce in the sixth, Foltynewicz recorded a pair of pressure-filled strikeouts against Olson and Jed Lowrie.
There were not many difficult defensive plays made behind him, but Danny Santana made a running catch near the left-field line on an Olson fly ball for the second out in the fourth inning that would’ve tested the speed for usual left fielder Kemp, who’s had a sore hamstring recently and served as designated hitter Friday in the interleague game.
“I think he made three or four catches, and I think about after the second I had a good feeling that I could take this thing all the way,” Foltynewicz said. “I battled to the last out.”
All three of Atlanta no-hitters have come against California teams, as was the last no-hitter thrown by a Braves pitcher before the move to Atlanta, Warren Spahn’s 1961 no-hitter against San Francisco for the Milwaukee Braves.
Phil Nikro threw Atlanta’s first no-hitter against San Diego on Aug. 5, 1973, and Mercker combined with relievers Mark Wohlers and Alejandro Pena for another no-hitter against the Padres on Sept. 11, 1991.
Foltynewicz’s fewest hits allowed this season before Friday was two in seven scoreless innings in a June 2 win at Cincinnati and four hits in seven scoreless innings five days later against the Phillies at SunTrust Park. Those also were his only two scoreless outings of the season before Friday.
Arguably his two best starts before Friday came last season on the road, May 14 against the Royals (career-high eight scoreless innings, seven hits, no walks, four strikeouts) and July 10 against the White Sox (seven scoreless innings, five hits, 10 strikeouts with no walks).