Just how did the 28-year-old rookie unlock the mysteries of Coors Field in his first outing there? And how did he tie the record, according to Elias Sports Bureau data, for the fewest runs (one) allowed in a pitcher’s first four big-league starts? Adjustments on the fly didn’t hurt.
“This is the best fastball command [that] I’ve seen him with, whether it be spring training or in the season,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I think early on, he threw a couple of sliders that didn’t have the break that I think he was anticipating. The one thing in Denver, you have to make sure you finish your pitches, and I think he realized it then. After that, the breaking ball had its sharpness, the slider had the sharpness and the fastball command was there all night long.”
In a game being televised live in Japan (on Sunday morning), Maeda took a no-hitter into the sixth inning. It was hard to deny the history, as it was 20 years ago when Maeda’s countryman Hideo Nomo, pitching for the Dodgers, fired the only no-hitter ever thrown at Coors Field.
Once Maeda gave up his first hit, to DJ LeMahieu with one out in the sixth, trouble arrived. The Rockies put together three consecutive hits to load the bases with the heart of the order due up. But Maeda went right back at it, getting Nolan Arenado to pop out and Gerardo Parra to hit a comebacker that ended the threat and pushed the Dodgers toward a 4-1 victory.
“I was aware that I was facing the 3 and 4 hitters, but I had a four-run lead, so I trusted [catcher] A.J. [Ellis’] pitch calling and I executed,” Maeda said through an interpreter.
In fact, Maeda said he barely shook off an Ellis pitch request all night.
“You know what, his pitch ability, his athleticism, his calmness and just with his first time here at Coors Field to handle himself and make pitches consistently, locate the fastball, keep those guys off balance, it was a special night,” Roberts said.
For the second consecutive night, the Dodgers also got a spectacular defensive play at a key moment. Left fielder Enrique Hernandez, he of the long hair tucked under his Dodgers cap, made a diving, over-the-shoulder catch to end the fifth inning and preserve the no-hitter, for a moment.
“I got a good jump, and after that, I just let the hair do its thing, and I caught it,” Hernandez said.
But Maeda remained the most stylistic.
Not only was he the first pitcher to carry a no-hitter into the sixth inning at Coors Field since Kevin Millwood in 2012, his eight strikeouts in one game were the most from a Dodgers pitcher over his first four starts since Matt Magill in 2013.
Maeda’s 0.36 ERA leads all National League starters, of course, and while the Rockies’ Trevor Story has received the most rookie buzz in the season’s opening month, Maeda went right into Story’s own backyard and made his presence known.
All this from a pitcher whose eight-year contract “only” guarantees him $25 million. Another $100 million-plus is available to him in performance incentives, and at this rate, the cash register seems to ding every time he comes off the mound.
“The good thing about him is that he is just going start to start, pitch to pitch,” Roberts said. “You look at this sample of four games and he has obviously exceeded every expectation we have had.”
Yet, Maeda’s performance can’t be considered completely unexpected. He is a two-time winner of the Sawamura Award (the equivalent to the Cy Young Award), including his most recent one last season for Hiroshima, when he delivered a 2.09 ERA over 29 starts (206⅓ innings). Maeda had a 2.39 career ERA in the Japan Central League.
If a new country, a new league and having to learn about new opponents and new teammates wasn’t enough of a challenge, Maeda has pitched at least as good, if not better, than anybody in baseball. Coors Field? No problem.
“I was told that the ball flies further here, so what I tried to do was to control my game the way I usually pitch and I was able to execute,” Maeda said. “That’s what happened today.”
What comes next is unknown. Maeda is pitching every five games now, as opposed to once a week in Japan, and the major league ball is slightly different that the one that is used in Japan. How much that has an effect over time remains to be seen.
For now, though, the Dodgers like what they see. How could they not?