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Braves Throwback Thursday: Kent Mercker, no-hit king

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Left-hander held Dodgers hitless 26 years ago this month

Atlanta Braves v Pittsburgh Pirates
Atlanta Braves pitcher Kent Mercker is shown here in 1994, the same season in which he pitched a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

It’s one of the great ironies in recent baseball history that of the many All-Star and future Hall-of-Fame pitchers who made their way through Atlanta in the 1990s and 2000s, the only one to pitch a no-hitter was a man who started a total of 54 games in eight seasons in a Braves uniform.

Left-hander Kent Mercker no-hit the Dodgers in Los Angeles on April 8, 1994, 26 years ago this month (not to mention the 20th anniversary of another, more famous, moment in Atlanta’s baseball annals). Mercker’s masterpiece, a 6-0 shutout with four walks and 10 strikeouts, remains the most-recent no-hitter in Braves history and one of just three since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966.

Mercker threw 128 pitches in his no-hitter, 82 of them strikes. The 26-year-old did it featuring not only a mid-90s fastball and curveball, but a changeup he’d only recently perfected.

“Mercker’s changeup was the difference,” Braves broadcaster (and former Dodgers ace) Don Sutton told the Los Angeles Times. “Here’s a guy who can throw in the 90s, but he also gave the Dodgers something they’ve never seen from him before.”

Though there were 11 no-hitters by Braves pitchers during the franchise’s Boston and Milwaukee days (including two by Hall-of-Famer Warren Spahn), Phil Niekro pitched the first Atlanta Braves no-hitter, a 9-0 whitewash of the San Diego Padres on Aug. 5, 1973, at Atlanta Stadium. The second came on Sept. 11, 1991, also in Atlanta, and also against San Diego.

That latter no-hitter was of the combined variety, with three pitchers sharing the credit. The first of those was … Kent Mercker.

Mercker — making just his second start of the year — went the first six innings, walking two and striking out six before leaving the game after throwing 82 pitches. Rookie Mark Wohlers was perfect through the sixth and seventh, and Alejandro Peña worked around a controversial two-out error in the ninth by third baseman Terry Pendleton to nail down the no-hitter and the victory (it was Pendleton’s fifth-inning solo homer that provided the only run of the game).

“I went to him to (Mercker) after the fifth and said I need one more [inning],” Braves manager Bobby Cox told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Then he was coming out.”

The 1991 season was Mercker’s first as a major-league regular, five years after the Braves made him their first-round pick (No. 5 overall) out of Dublin High School in Ohio. All four of the players drafted ahead of him — third basemen Jeff King and Matt Williams and pitchers Greg Swindell and Kevin Brown — went on to substantial MLB careers, as did No. 6 pick Gary Sheffield.

Mercker won 14 games with a 2.91 ERA in 28 minor-league starts in 1988, then posted a 3.20 ERA in 27 starts the following year before being called up to Atlanta for two late-season appearances in September of 1989. He started the 1990 season at Triple-A Richmond — making 10 starts — before being recalled for good at the end of June and pitching out of the bullpen the rest of the season, putting up a 3.17 ERA in 36 games.

In 1991, Mercker couldn’t crack a loaded Braves rotation — which included fellow high draft picks Tom Glavine (2nd round, 1984) and Steve Avery (No. 3 overall, 1988), trade acquisition John Smoltz and free-agent import Charlie Leibrandt — and worked mostly out of the bullpen again for Atlanta’s “Worst to First” pennant winners. That combined no-hitter in September was one of only four starts Mercker made that season, in which he put up a 2.58 ERA in 73.1 innings spread over 50 games.

Mercker remained mostly stuck in the bullpen for the next two years, with Mike Bielecki and Pete Smith sharing fifth-starter duties in 1992 and Cy Young winner Greg Maddux taking over at the head of the rotation in 1993 (Leibrandt was traded to the Texas Rangers on the very day Maddux signed with Atlanta). In 96 games (just six of them starts) those two seasons, Mercker combined for a 3.15 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 134.1 innings.

One of those starts came on Sept. 9, 1993, when Mercker pitched six no-hit innings in San Diego before he was removed for a pinch-hitter with the game scoreless. This time, Wohlers allowed a hit — a single by Luis Lopez with two outs in the eighth — before the Braves won 1-0 in 10 innings on Ron Gant’s solo homer.

Smith was dealt to the New York Mets after the 1993 season, finally opening a more-or-less full-time spot in the rotation for Mercker. The Braves opened the 1994 season with four straight wins in San Diego — games started by Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Avery, in that order — then headed to Los Angeles, with Mercker handed the ball on a Friday night at Dodger Stadium.

As I.J. Rosenberg of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote in his pre-game report: “(Mercker’s) problem, the reason he always has bounced from the bullpen to the rotation and back, always has been the lack of a dependable pitch other than his fastball, which he throws in the low- to mid-90 mph range. But his curveball has improved and he is becoming consistent with a split-finger fastball. The key to a quick start will be his control. He needs to limit his walks.”

Mercker didn’t exactly look in control early on, walking two of the first four Dodgers hitters he faced before getting Tim Wallach to fly out and end the first inning. The Braves took the pressure off a bit in the top of the second, however, with both Fred McGriff and Pendleton homering off L.A. starter Pedro Astacio to put Atlanta on top 2-0.

Mercker got the Dodgers 1-2-3 in the second (with Pendleton making a nice play at third to stab a Raul Mondesi grounder), then escaped the third after walking Brett Butler with two outs when Mike Piazza hit into a fielder’s choice. David Justice gave him more cushion with a solo homer leading off the top of the fourth.

Mercker retired the Dodgers in order in the fourth and fifth innings, collecting three strikeouts to push his game total to seven. Braves center fielder Deion Sanders made a lunging catch of a sinking linker by Jose Offerman for the second out of the fifth.

In the sixth, Mercker walked Butler again before striking out Piazza and retiring Eric Karros on a hard line-drive to Mark Lemke at second base to end the inning. The play would have likely resulted in a hit had Butler not attempted to steal and Lemke run to cover second, only to arrive at the bag at the same time as the ball.

“There’s no way I would have gotten it otherwise,” Lemke told the L.A. Times. “Funny, with me breaking, if Karros hits the ball where the second baseman normally is, he gets a base hit.”

Pendleton tripled to start the seventh, and came home on Javy Lopez’s sacrifice fly for a 4-0 Atlanta lead. Mercker got the Dodgers 1-2-3 in both the seventh and eighth innings — mixing three fly outs and three groundouts — to take the game to the ninth.

In the top of the inning, Pendleton doubled home two runs to put the Braves up 6-0. (Of the seven Atlanta runs scored in the two no-hitters in which Mercker was involved, “TP” scored three of them and knocked in four.)

That set the stage for Mercker’s shot at history, the bottom of the ninth. Due up were the Dodgers’ 2-3-4 hitters — Butler, Piazza and Karros.

Mercker struck out both Butler and Piazza looking on 2-2 pitches, a fastball to Butler and a breaking ball to Piazza that was probably a good deal outside — but close enough for home-plate umpire Ed Rapuano to ring up the Dodgers’ catcher. On his second pitch to Karros, the Los Angeles first baseman hit a one-hopper back to the mound, and Mercker stabbed the grounder and sprinted halfway to first before stopping and flipping underhand to McGriff for the final out.

“I had a sense after the sixth inning that something could happen,” Mercker told the L.A. Times. “I had two no-hitters going in the past, but that’s when I was in the bullpen and didn’t have the endurance to keep going after six innings. … Tonight, I had to prove I had the endurance. I’m just glad to be able to keep up with the other four guys.”

Here’s video of the final out:

Mercker started 16 more games (and relieved in three others) in that strike-shortened 1994 season, compiling a 3.45 ERA and a 9-4 record. He remained in the rotation in the Braves’ 1995 World Series championship season, going 7-8 with a 4.15 ERA in 143 innings (he pitched just twice in the postseason, working a total of 2.1 innings out of the bullpen).

After the 1995 season, the Braves traded Mercker — who was due to be a free agent the following winter — to the Baltimore Orioles for reliever Joe Borowski and minor-league pitcher Chaad Stewart (who never made the majors). He was traded again at midseason to Cleveland, then signed with Cincinnati as a free agent in 1997.

Mercker lasted in the majors until 2008 as a classic journeyman, pitching a total of 18 seasons with nine different teams. He made a brief return to Atlanta in 2003 following an August trade, posting a 1.06 ERA in 17 innings out of the bullpen before signing with the Cubs that offseason.

Mercker also survived a life-threatening cerebral hemorrhage while pitching for the Anaheim Angels on May 11, 2000, missing three months before returning late in the season. He retired after the 2008 season at age 40, having posted a 74-67 record, a 4.16 ERA (good for a 104 ERA+ in that offense-heavy time) and 917 strikeouts in 692 games, 150 of them starts.

Mercker was worth 12.7 Wins Above Replacement in his career, in which he earned more than $19 million. Since retiring, he has dabbled in radio and television broadcasting with his home-state Reds, and also worked for a sports management firm.

Since Mercker’s gem in 1994, only three Braves pitchers have carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning. Interestingly enough, those three have all occurred in the last five seasons.

On May 17, 2015, Shelby Miller no-hit the Marlins through 8 2/3 innings in Miami before Justin Bour singled to center. After Dee Gordon followed with an infield single, Martin Prado popped out and Miller had finished off a 6-0, two-hit shutout.

On June 30, 2017, Mike Foltynewicz allowed only three walks to the Athletics through eight innings in Oakland, but Matt Olson led off the ninth with a solo homer. Foltynewicz immediately left the game, and Jim Johnson gave up a double to Jed Lowrie before retiring three straight hitters to save a 3-1 victory.

On July 29, 2018, Sean Newcomb got within one out of glory against the Dodgers at SunTrust Park before Chris Taylor singled to left. Dan Winkler replaced Newcomb and surrendered Manny Machado’s RBI single (Taylor had taken second on catcher’s indifference) before getting the last two batters to preserve a 4-1 Braves win.

Only six MLB clubs have gone longer since their most-recent no-hitter than the Braves’ 26-year drought. The Padres have never had a no-hitter in a team history that spans to 1969, while the Indians (1981), Brewers (1987), Blue Jays (1990), Orioles (1991) and Royals (1991) also continue to wait.

Until another Braves pitcher finally finishes off a no-hitter, Kent Mercker’s name will remain etched in the Atlanta record books. On a memorable night at Dodger Stadium 26 years ago, he was literally unhittable.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. No, that’s not his real name.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; SABR Bio Project; Newspapers.com; ESPN.com; MLB.com; MilkeesPress.com