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Archive for June 25th, 2011

A.J. Burnett tied a major league record shared by 54 others when he struck out four batters in the sixth inning of last night’s game against the Rockies. In addition to becoming the first Yankee to accomplish the feat, Burnett also became only the second pitcher to do it on at least two different occasions (he previously turned the trick on July 5, 2002 as a member of the Marlins). However, don’t blame Chuck Finley if he isn’t impressed. The Angels’ and Indians’ lefthander did it three times.

Chuck Finley struck out four batters in one inning on three different occasions.

Four strike outs in one inning is a rare enough feat. Since 1876, there have been 3,545,338 major league innings, so, in order to display the frequency of this accomplishment, scientific notation is needed. Considering the difficulty of getting four and the logistical barriers to five, Burnett’s shared record might be one of baseball’s most unbreakable. Just don’t tell that to Cliff Johnson.

On April 7, 1976, one day before the start of the regular season, the Houston Astros played an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins in the New Orleans Superdome. The Astros starting battery that afternoon was Joe Niekro and Cliff Johnson, a utility man who played defense with his bat. The combination of Johnson’s suspect glove and Niekro’s knuckleball proved to be a recipe for a very unusual inning.

In the opening frame of the pre-season finale, Niekro faced six batters and struck out five. How was that possible? Johnson also had five passed balls in the inning, including two on third strikes. Had the game taken place one day later, the Astros’ knuckleballer would have owned one of the most improbable records in major league history. Even without the historical implications, Johnson had an inning he’ll probably never forget.

It was just a tough pitch to handle today. It was doing a little bit of everything. He was throwing it harder and the break on it was different.” – Cliff Johnson, quoted by AP, April 7, 1976

Although that inning in New Orleans wasn’t one of Johnson’s best moments in the big leagues, it might have been the turning point in Niekro’s career. Up until that point, the righthander was a journeyman already on his fifth major league team. Once known as a control artist who featured a more classic repertoire of fastball, slider and curve, Niekro was now in the process of reinventing himself as a knuckleball specialist.

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