Anatomy of a ‘no-hit’ game story

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Yogi Berra (8) hugs Don Larsen after the Yankees pitcher threw the only perfect game n World Series history

Yogi Berra (8) hugs Don Larsen after the Yankees pitcher threw the only perfect game in World Series history.

Covering a no-hitter is no easy task, especially if the feat is accomplished late at night. That was the situation Sunday when the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano threw the 237th no-hitter in history, a 5-0 victory over the Astros in Milwaukee. The game was already unique in that neither team was really at home (although the fans at Miller Field were clearly partisan toward Chicago). Hurricane Ike had forced Houston to move the game to a neutral site, otherwise the game could not have fit into the schedule before the end of the season.

Shirley Povich wrote, perhaps, the greatest lead for a no-hitter, typing the following after Don Larsen had thrown a perfect game in the 1956 World Series for the New York Yankees.

The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reach-first game in a World Series.

On the mound at Yankee Stadium, the same guy who was knocked out in two innings by the Dodgers on Friday, came up today with one for the record books, posting it there in solo grandeur as the only Perfect Game in World Series history.

With it, the Yankee right-hander shattered the Dodgers, 2-0, and beat Sal Maglie, while taking 64,519 suspense-limp fans into his act.

Povich showed why he is considered one of the best sportswriters of all-time by mixing several idioms and sayings and by creatively playing off the word ‘no.’ Notice also the variety of sentences in the lead, whose lengths vary from three to 18 words. Povich also inserts the score in the third graph. Of course, this was not a flukishly good lead. Povich delivered great insights and prose for more than 70 years at the Washington Post. He even took on social issues in some stories, like the one below:

On Jackie Robinson signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946: “Four hundred and fifty-five years after Columbus eagerly discovered America, major league baseball reluctantly discovered the American Negro . . .”

Why are some sportswriters so good? Simple language and clear observations rolled around complex ideas. That’s why Hamlet’s speech about suicide is so eloquent: “To be or not to be.” That’s a helluva question for anybody. That’s also why declarative sentences often work best, especially when you are writing to a general audience. The best writers are also the best read, versed in classic literature, history and contemporary culture.

So what elements are required to write about a no-hitter? Here are a few:

■ Obviously, the score should be inserted relatively early, although do not force it into the opening sentence. You can wait until the second or third graphs in most cases.

■ Describe the final inning, although you do not need to describe every pitch. You can then describe the one or two innings leading to this inning later in the story, if you like.

Zambrano began the ninth by getting Humberto Quintero to ground out on one pitch, his 100th of the game. After pinch-hitter Jose Castillo also grounded out, Erstad chased a split-fingered fastball low-and-away for Zambrano’s first shutout since 2004.

■ Briefly describe great defensive plays (or lucky bounces) that helped preserve the no-hitter.

The Astros barely came close to a hit. David Newhan lined a drive that first baseman Derrek Lee jumped to catch to end the fifth inning. Zambrano also fretted when Geoff Blum sent a fly ball toward the right-field corner to lead off the eighth, but Mark DeRosa tracked it down.

Zambrano helped himself with his glove, too, charging off the mound and across the first-base line to catch Hunter Pence’s foul pop for the second out in the eighth.

■ Cite the last time the team threw a no-hitter (although this is nearly impossible for Little League and some high school games). College programs ought to include this information. If it is not offered, call the sports information director, who will probably already have such details ready for reporters.

Zambrano (14-5) walked one and hit a batter in the Cubs’ first no-hitter since Milt Pappas against San Diego in 1972. This was the 13th no-hitter in team history, including five in the late 1800s, and the second in the majors this season — Boston’s Jon Lester did it against Kansas City at Fenway Park on May 19.

■ Cite whether this player has ever pitched a no-hitter before. Has he ever come close before?

■ Cite scoring plays for the winning team, although do so briefly because that is not the most significant aspect of a no-hit game. This description can be slightly more important if the winning run scores in the final inning, but this would still be secondary information.

Alfonso Soriano gave Zambrano all the offense he needed when he led off the game with his 28th home run, launching a 1-1 pitch from Randy Wolf (10-12). It was his 49th career leadoff homer and fifth this year.

Ronny Cedeno and Zambrano both singled in the third, and two outs later, both scored on Lee’s double off an 0-2 pitch from Wolf. For Lee, it was only his second multi-RBI hit this month. Lee then scored on Aramis Ramirez’s single, and he tallied on Soto’s double to go ahead, 5-0.

■ You may want to describe the pitcher’s reaction after the final out.

Zambrano (14-5) dropped to his knees and pointed to the sky with both hands after getting Erstad to swing and miss for his season-high 10th strikeout. The big right-hander was immediately mobbed on the mound by his teammates.

■ Interview the catcher, asking him to evaluate pitches and location. Ask the catcher to verify what pitches were thrown during key at-bats. Did the last batter lunge at a slider for the final out? Did the pitcher use a sinker to induce the grounder to start a double-play in the seventh?

Cubs catcher Geovany Soto said he knew early in the game that Zambrano was having a special night.

“I don’t even know when I caught the fifth, sixth and seventh. I looked up and it was in the eighth; it went quick,” Soto said. “He was getting ahead a lot, a lot of groundballs, and he was in the zone.

“I’ve seen him throw the ball like that. That’s the Zambrano we know. He proved he’s the ace, and he came through today. His ball was really heavy, and he was using both corners of the plate. He was bringing it pretty good.”

■ Ask the pitcher to put the performance into perspective, to cite the pitches that worked best, and to explain what he was thinking in that final inning, or during a difficut at-bat.

I was warming up [before the ninth], and I said I still have some gas in my tank, and I can still challenge people,” said Zambrano, who got Humbrerto Quintero and Jose Castillo on ground balls to open the ninth and struck out leadoff hitter Darin Erstad to end it — raising his arms to the sky and falling to his knees with the final out.

”I thought at some point in my career I wanted to throw a no-hitter,” he said. ”This is one of the few things in baseball that you most enjoy.”

■ Interview opposing hitters to get their perspective on this performance, perhaps asking them to assess particular pitches, velocity or pitch selection.

Erstad struck out twice and was fooled on the game’s final pitch.

“Any particular time he can throw a no-hitter,” Erstad said. “He’s got that kind of stuff.

“You just try to battle him, and obviously we didn’t get it done. Chalk it up to another day in major-league baseball.”

■ Interview both managers for even further insights.

“He beat a team that’s really been hot,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said about the Astros, who had won 14 of their previous 15 games to vault into the National League wild-card chase. “We were talking before the ball game about 90 pitches. But I told (bench coach) Alan (Trammel) if he’s got to come out of the game, you go get him. I’m not.

“He had everything going, from the first few pitches of the ball game. You knew his arm was live and the ball was coming out really easy. He had good movement on it, and located for the most part. Then he used his split-finger and his slider to keep the hitters honest.”

■ Insert great quotes high in the story.

■ Cite how many runners reached base, detailing what happened when they did so. Did any runners get past second base, were any runners doubled off, did any runners reach third thanks to errors or wild pitches?

Zambrano didn’t allow a baserunner until he walked Michael Bourn in the fourth. He allowed only one more baserunner, hitting Pence in the back with two outs in the fifth.

or

Zambrano allowed only a one-out walk to Michael Bourn in the fourth inning, who was immediately erased on a double-play grounder, and a two-out hit batsman in the fifth, when he plunked Hunter Pence with a 1-2 pitch.

■ Cite whether the pitcher retired a number of batters in a row, such as the first eight or last 11.

He retired 13 straight after that to finish the Cubs’ first no-hitter since Milt Pappas in 1972 — still throwing 96 mph in the eighth and reaching 95 in the ninth.

■ Cite the number of walks and strikeouts. Include the pitcher’s record.

■ Cite how did this pitcher fared in recent starts.

Until Sunday night, Zambrano was 1-1 with an 8.10 ERA in his previous five starts.

or

This Carlos Zambrano bore no resemblance to the righthander the Astros kicked around just 12 days earlier. He entered the game just 5-3 with a 4.40 ERA since the All-Star break.

■ Cite the significance of the game.

The Cubs moved 7 1/2 games ahead of Milwaukee in the National League Central after the Brewers were swept in Philadelphia, allowing the Phillies to move into a tie for the wild-card lead.

■ Consider if anything else is unique about this game, as was the case for Zambrano’s gem.

This was baseball’s first neutral-site no-hitter, the Elias Sports Bureau said.

■ Finally, write a lead worthy of such an athletic performance, which is easier said than done. Take some chances with leads for major events like this. Better to fail big than to succeed small. You may want to keep a journal where you record sentences, words and ideas you like as you read others in newspapers, magazines and books. Reviewing great works is always an inspiration.

Richard Justice, the talented baseball writer for the Houston Chronicle, used vivid verbs to build some tension in his lead. He also repeats ‘never,’ which resonates Povich’s style.

MILWAUKEE — He threw 96 mph heat on the hands, spotted knee-buckling breaking stuff on the corners.

Carlos Zambrano never let up, never lost his velocity, will or composure.

Zambrano finished off the Chicago Cubs’ first no-hitter in 36 years by getting Darin Erstad to lunge at a third strike in a 5-0 victory over the Astros on Sunday night at Miller Park. He then pumped his fists and screamed for joy as his teammates joined him for a wild celebration.

All those worries about his health suddenly seemed unfounded.

The Chicago Sun-Times’ Gordon Wittenmyer uses short sentences to offer the broader picture for readers more familiar with Zambrano’s shoulder problems. For Cubs fans, the no-hitter is great, but a healthy Zambrano in the postseason is even more important.

MILWAUKEE — The second pitch said 96 mph. The eighth said 98. The one after that: 99.

Carlos Zambrano? He said: ”I guess I’m back.”

Except you can’t get back to a place you’ve never been. And that’s where the Cubs’ big right-hander went Sunday night at Miller Park — throwing the Cubs’ ninth no-hitter since 1900 and the first in major-league history at a neutral site.

Make that an allegedly neutral site — where almost every one of 23,441 in attendance chanted his name, booed the ”home” Houston Astros and stood cheering late in the game on two-strike counts as he neared his historic achievement in his first start since leaving a game because of shoulder discomfort.

Most importantly, don’t feel compelled to write the same story as everybody else. Obviously, the primary facts are the same for all, but how you frame them is equally important. Take chances, offer the salient details and let the reader enjoy reliving a game for the record books.

-30-

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