Domenic Mazza's season began with the left-hander from Concord, Calif. being pulled into connection with some baseball news he likely wishes weren't so public. Tuesday night in Lexington, Ky., he found a way to make bigger news overshadow all the rest.
In his first start of the 2017 season, a Mazza pitch went over the left field fence for a home run. Not really a big deal, except it was former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow's first career minor league home run, of which Mazza's name would always be in connection.
But with no outs in the ninth inning at Whitaker Bank Ballpark a few weeks later, Mazza watched his right fielder Sandro Fabian run down a gut-wrenching fly ball to preserve perfection, satisfied minutes later after two consecutive pop-ups were caught without fuss by Ashford Fulmer.
It was the first nine-inning perfect game in South Atlantic League history, and it had all kinds of drama. Let's rewind to the top of the eighth.
Mazza had just retired his 21st straight Legends hitter, ending the seventh inning to go sit presumably nervous in the dugout waiting for his half of the inning to roll around again. Pitch count wasn't a concern, as Mazza, despite having struck out eight batters at this point in the game, had pitched incredibly efficient. Just 75 pitches had been used.
And Mazza is no stranger to long outings. He had thrown 81 pitches in his previous start and averaged 82.4 pitches per game a year ago, eclipsing the 90-pitch park in six of 14 starts.
Holding onto a tight lead wasn't an issue, either. The Augusta GreenJackets entered the eighth up 6-0, and a Kelvin Beltre "is-it-fair-or-foul" home run increased that lead to seven. But when Legends' catcher Nick Dini took exception to Beltre's self-admiration, words were exchanged, arms were swung, and the benches cleared.
From the moment the fight started to when baseball resumed, at least 15 minutes had passed as the umpires sorted out who would be ejected. Beltre and Dini were tossed, of course, as well as new Giants minor leaguer Frandy De La Rosa, who was on deck. All this, assuredly, added some stress to Mazza's situation.
He didn't look phased, though, striking out the first batter of the eighth inning to make it nine punch outs — still two short of his career high.
As in most perfect games, a spectacular defensive play of some variety preserves the feat. That moment came with one down in the eighth as Emmanuel Rivera drove a liner the other way for a sure base hit. GreenJackets right fielder Sandro Fabian hurried to his right, dove head first, and caught the baseball.
Fabian wasn't done, though. Legends' pinch-hitter Manny Olloque, who replaced the ejected catcher Dini, launched one towards Fabian in the ninth. This time, Fabian had to cut back and to his right and head towards the warning track, and eventually the wall. He reached up, on the run, and made a backhanded catch to save Mazza for the second time in a span of 15 minutes.
The conclusion was miraculously easy for Mazza. In just three pitches, bringing his grand total to 85, he coaxed two pop-ups to center field and excitement erupted.
Mazza enjoyed a quietly impressive 2016 season, spent entirely with these same GreenJackets. Though ironically opposing hitters averaged .290 off him a year ago, he owned a 22.2% strikeout rate and a 4.5% walk rate, as well as a FIP almost a full point lower than his 3.93 ERA.
Watching the last three innings, it appeared Mazza was working with a pretty special curveball. Lefties weren't picking it up and it was well-placed in the lower third of the zone, or falling out of the zone, for many swinging strikes. He finished the night of his life with 24 swinging strikes all together, accounting for a ridiculous 28.2% of his pitches.
— Mac Williamson got into the hit column with a lucky slow roller that truly should have been called an error — which insanely would have been Las Vegas' sixth of their dreadful defensive game. But Williamson unloaded on one in the seventh, launching a grand slam to put Sacramento up 5-1.
— Joan Gregorio was fastball/slider heavy in his fourth start of the year, which also turned out to be his best and most effective start. He struck out five, allowed as many baserunners as innings pitched (7), and held the 51s to one run. Gregorio's success on Tuesday appeared to come from a good mix of both of his best pitches, well placed in a vertically-oriented changing of sight lines. Two of his strikeouts were noticeable in that after staying low for most of the at-bat, Gregorio finished them off with high heat near the letters.
TOP-30 PROSPECTS ROUNDUP
- Tyler Beede: DNP
- Christian Arroyo: 1-for-4, 2 SO
- Bryan Reynolds: 3-for-4, SO
- Steven Duggar: DNP
- Chris Shaw: DNP
- Sandro Fabian: 0-for-5, SO
- Heath Quinn: DNP
- Joan Gregorio: 7 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 5 K
- Jordan Johnson: 4 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 5 K
- Andrew Suarez: DNP
- Ty Blach: 5 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 2 K
- Steven Okert: DNP
- Sam Coonrod: DNP
- Matt Krook: DNP
- Aramis Garcia: DNP
- C.J. Hinojosa: DNP
- Reyes Moronta: DNP
- Rodolfo Martinez: DNP
- Austin Slater: 0-for-4, 2 SO
- Kelvin Beltre: 2-for-4, R, 2B, HR, RBI
- Dan Slania: DNP
- Cory Taylor: DNP
- Chris Stratton: DNP
- Chase Johnson: DNP
- Jalen Miller: 0-for-4, 3 SO
- Melvin Adon: DNP
- Garrett Williams: DNP
- Dylan Davis: 0-for-4, R
- Ryder Jones: DNP
- Hunter Cole: 2-for-4, R, 2B, RBI