Bailey no stranger to flashes of brilliance
I have this memory of Homer Bailey, younger in years, longer in locks and unlimited, it seemed, in potential.Just so happens, this memory takes place six years ago in PNC Park. I was in the U.S. dugout covering the XM All-Star Futures Game, and Bailey, along with the likes of Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Howie Kendrick, Hunter Pence, Billy Butler and Gio Gonzalez, among others, was on that U.S. roster. And Bailey treated this particular event in the manner it ought to be treated. It was a showcase, after all. The result didn't particularly matter. No home-field advantage was tied to its final score. This was a time to shine for the scouts and the national TV audience.
A time, simply put, to show off.That's what Bailey did. He reeled back and fired off one high-velocity fastball after another. Frankly, I don't know what the gun readings said that day. Mid- to high-90s, I suspect. I don't remember the result, don't remember how the opposition fared. All I remember is that smile on Bailey's face as he stepped off the mound and the look on his teammates' faces as he made the trek back toward the dugout. They were looks of awe, because this was a display that emanated from the arm of a young man taken seventh overall in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, a young man who could light up a radar with a flick of the wrist. And in this showcase, Bailey showed neither need nor desire to demonstrate anything other than his heat. Well, Google can certainly mess with a memory. I do a quick search now, and I see that Bailey gave up a run on two hits in one inning of work. Apparently, a dominant display it was not. Whatever. All I remember are those smiles and that satisfaction Bailey clearly felt from bringing his most stunning stuff to a national stage. Fast forward six years and a few months, and Bailey's back in PNC Park on Friday night. It's not a showcase. Rather, it's a regular-season game that, even for a Reds team that has clinched its division, carries quite a bit of weight, given that the Redlegs are vying with the Nationals for the NL's top seed. (Truth be known, it's a big game for the Pirates, too, trending as they are toward their 20th consecutive losing season and in need of winning out to avoid it after the no-hitter.) Bailey, by this point, is no longer a highly touted up-and-comer. If anything, he's been a disappointment in his career trajectory. He's dealt with some shoulder woes, he's struggled with consistency and his first name has proven an all-too-appropriate appellation, given that he's served up a little more than one long ball per every nine innings pitched in the Majors. But Bailey has shown some flashes in recent outings for a Reds team that has run away with the NL Central. And though it feels like he's been around forever, he is only 26, young enough to boast belief that his best days are still ahead of him. And this, it turns out, was one of the best days anybody who does what Homer Bailey does for a living has ever had. Because this was the day that Homer Bailey blanked the Buccos and tossed the first no-hitter for the Reds franchise since Tom Browning's perfect game in 1988. Bailey, too, might have had a perfect game, if not for Scott Rolen's third-inning error that allowed Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes to reach base and the walk he issued to Andrew McCutchen in the seventh. Otherwise, this was an overpowering outing. Bailey struck out 10 batters, and he threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of the 29 batters he faced. "We didn't have our best stuff," Bailey would say afterward. "But somehow we were able to make good pitches. And my defense really had my back. They really make a pitcher look good." Well, yes, the Reds have a dependable defense, but that's not the story here. The story was Bailey, on the fringes of the Reds' playoff rotation, pitching like a Game 1 wannabe, turning in the kind of dominant display forecast for him back when he was a No. 1 pick and a member of the Futures Game festivities. This was also an example of just how deep Bailey's arsenal can be when he's got his best stuff. He broke out his breaking ball in the middle innings, he slowed the Pirates' bats with his slider, and he was able to elevate the fastball and blow it by the Buccos when he needed it most late. We'll give an admittedly odd assist to Pirates starter A.J. Burnett, for his eight outstanding innings, in which he allowed just a run on seven hits, forced the issue and upped the ante. This was a duel of the first degree. The Reds got a run in the first, and then Burnett pushed Bailey every inning thereafter. "Me and A.J. have gone back and forth four or five times this year," Bailey said. "I just kept trying to put up zeros." The zero in the hits column becomes Bailey's legacy, the highlight of his Wikipedia page and future media guide bio, until further notice. "He's come a long way," catcher Ryan Hanigan said. "You never know how good this guy is going be. He's still got a lot of years left." Granted, we've seen seven of these no-hitters this season, including three perfect games. If you don't know what to make of it, if you're wondering if we make too much of it, I hear you. I'm with you. But within the framework of history, no-hitters are still rare enough to resonate. And ultimately they resonate because of the stories behind them. In this story, we have a young man who has often struggled to live up to the hype that comes in an era of prominent prospect chatter. An era of televised drafts and Futures Game rosters. Our expectations get elevated, often unfairly. Bailey elevated his game Friday night. Elevated it to the level prescribed for him long ago. He stepped off that mound, and there was that smile. I'll remember that smile. And this time, I'll remember the result.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.