James McCann, one strike away from catching the first no-hitter of Major League Baseball’s strangest season, wanted to look away on Tuesday as some painful history seemed to be repeating itself.
It felt like August 26, 2015 — the day that Chris Iannetta of the Los Angeles Angels crushed a high, ninth-inning fastball and the no-hit hopes that McCann had been crafting with Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander.
“I had flashbacks to that,” admitted McCann, a 2008 graduate of Dos Pueblos High School. “I relived the pitch.”
The high fastball that he signaled on Tuesday to Lucas Giolito — the Chicago White Sox pitcher who trusted him more than any other — was also whacked hard to the outfield by Pittsburgh’s Erik Gonzalez.
“I don’t think I’ve held my breath like that in a really long time,” McCann said. “It was one of those off the bat that I didn’t really even want to watch, to be honest.”
But Adam Engel’s running catch in right field — clinching the 4-0, no-hit victory at Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field — had McCann hyperventilating as he ran into the arms of his close friend.
“Just where I’m at in my career,” he began, “and doing it with a guy like Lucas, who I have such a special connection with, is something that… I just don’t know what to say. It’s pretty special.”
They resurrected their careers together on Chicago’s South Side last year. In 2018, Giolito’s earned run average of 6.13 was the worst among all of baseball’s qualified starting pitchers. Detroit cast off McCann that same season after he’d batted a career-low .220.
But they both made the American League All-Star team in 2019. Giolito posted a win-loss record of 14-9 and ERA of 3.41, while McCann batted .279 with 18 home runs.
“People wrote him off, people wrote me off — and then, all of a sudden, we’re both All-Stars in 2019,” McCann said during Tuesday’s post-game, video press conference. “As special as that 2019 All-Star game was with him and (fellow teammate Jose) Abreu, tonight is on another level.
“Tonight is something that I’ll never forget and something he’ll never forget. And yeah, there is a bond to proving people wrong, continuing to work and continuing to prove people wrong.”
Giolito, who had previously known McCann only as an opposing batter, put his fate in the catcher’s hands during spring training of 2019.
“It started with our first conversation after my first bullpen throwing to him,” Giolito said. “He said, ‘The ball looks different coming out of your hand than last year.’
“I would have games where I could ramp it up to 95, 96, but it just wasn’t coming out the same. And he was the first one to say, ‘What’d you change? What happened?’ And so that already made me feel good from the get-go.”
McCann wound up catching all 176 2/3 of his innings last year. He’s also caught the last 16 in which Giolito has allowed no runs with 26 strikeouts, increasing his season total to 58. That ranks second in all of baseball to the 75 strikeouts recorded by Cleveland ace Shane Bieber, a former UCSB star.
“I think Lucas is an unbelievable pitcher and I think he’s got great stuff, and I think our relationship just takes it to the next level,” McCann said. “He’s really bought into how I call a game and how I manage a game, and it’s worked.
“Like I’ve said numerous times, he trusts me, I trust him.”
But Tuesday’s extraordinary victory actually felt very “typical” to Giolito.
“I’m up there on the mound, I’m letting him do all the thinking, letting him read the hitters,” he said. “I’m paying attention, I’m seeing what they’re doing, but I’d say tonight was one of those nights to where we were really in sync.
“Like, I had the grip ready to go and he was putting the signs down.”
McCann was actually “caught off guard” early in the game when he called for a slider that Giolito shook off in favor of a fastball.
“I can literally think of maybe three times in our entire history together where he’s shaken off,” he said. “It’s one of those things where that trust that we’ve had, I don’t know if I’ve ever had that with another pitcher in my career.”
Giolito’s faith in McCann grew as he watched him do his homework during last year’s road trips.
“Every single flight, he’s got his iPad, computer open,” he said. “He’s looking at numbers that I still don’t understand yet, putting together scouting reports for each hitter we’re going to face.
“We go over it together. And then when we go out there, we both have the game plan so set in our minds that it just makes it easier for me to go out there and perform, be loose, relaxed and just have fun with it.
“He’s doing all the thinking, he’s doing all the hard work, and I’m just out there throwing the ball.”
The wheels in McCann’s head were turning during Tuesday’s ninth inning after Giolito got two outs and two quick strikes on Gonzalez.
“We had thrown four sliders in a row to (Jose) Osuna in the bat before, had gone two straight sliders to Gonzalez,” he said. “My thought process was, ‘Here, let’s let a fastball rip up in the top of the zone, really up at his eyes.’”
And then he wanted to close his eyes as he watched Gonzalez’s line drive slice into right field.
Giolito admitted that he’d left his pitch a little lower than desired, figuring that McCann had wanted him to “throw it to the backstop.”
“He put a really good swing on it,” he added. “But that’s part of a no-hitter. There’s always that one play, right? And I guess that was the one.”
Engel made the play, completing a no-hitter that Giolito said belonged to the entire team.
“A no-hitter is not all the pitcher… ever,” he said.
And “a huge part of what happened tonight,” he added, was the catcher.
“We have a lot of different personalities in our clubhouse, it’s fantastic,” Giolito said, “but James can get along perfectly with each one.”
And especially with a pitcher bent on zero hits.