After losing 13 decisions in a row with Toronto, Aaron Sanchez was looking for a fresh start and a way to turn things around in his move to the Houston Astros.
But even with their history of improving the performance of pitchers, it would have been hard to imagine his Houston debut would go this well Saturday night.
Sanchez looked like a reinvented pitcher, throwing six stellar innings to start the Astros on a combined no-hitter in their 9-0 victory over the Seattle Mariners.
"It's hard to come to a team and feel like you can contribute right away when they're already so good," Sanchez said. "So for tonight to end the way it did, these guys coming in behind me and doing their part, too ... I'm so happy."
Sanchez was an All-Star in 2016 and led the American League in ERA, but he'd struggled badly this season and was leading the majors with 14 losses. However, three days after he was acquired from the Blue Jays at the trade deadline, the 27-year-old right-hander teamed with Will Harris, Joe Biagini and Chris Devenski to shut down Seattle.
"Just trying to have a good first impression," said Sanchez, pulled by manager AJ Hinch after 92 pitches.
It was the second time in less than a month the last-place Mariners were no-hit by multiple pitchers. The Los Angeles Angels used two in a combined no-hitter July 12 against Seattle on a night when they honored late left-hander Tyler Skaggs by all wearing his No. 45 in their first home game since his death.
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Sanchez (4-14) kept the Mariners off balance with a steady stream of fastballs in the low-to-mid 90s (mph) coupled with slow curves that often froze batters for strikes as he worked with veteran catcher Martin Maldonado, picked up by Houston in a trade with the Chicago Cubs earlier in the week.
"He certainly wasn't dominating anybody coming into the game, so we expected to do a lot more against him and just weren't able to get it done," Seattle manager Scott Servais said.
Hinch was glad the baggage of Sanchez's struggles in Toronto didn't follow him to Houston.
"I don't carry the burden of the early-season losses for him because he wasn't with us," Hinch said. "I am proud of him for containing his energy and containing his excitement. ... I feel so good for him because he was able to channel that inner energy that he has and deliver a huge start. He really did step onto this team and provide a great first impression."
After six sparkling innings, Sanchez was replaced by Harris to start the seventh in a move Hinch called a "no-brainer."
"I get the dilemma and obviously it kind of hits you in the stomach a little bit, but my responsibility is to take care of him, take care of our team, take care of our pursuit to win the division," Hinch explained.
Harris and Biagini, also obtained from the Blue Jays in the same deal that netted Sanchez, each worked one inning before Devenski tossed a perfect ninth. He retired All-Star slugger Daniel Vogelbach on a routine fly for the final out, setting off an Astros celebration on the field after the club's 12th no-hitter.
Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, who threw one of his record seven no-hitters for Houston, was at Minute Maid Park to see this one.
"This is awesome," Sanchez said, adding: "You can't write it up any better than this."
Sanchez struck out six, walked two and hit a batter with a pitch in his first victory since April 27 for Toronto. He had been winless in 17 consecutive starts.
Hinch patted Sanchez on the chest after he finished the sixth, and pitching coach Brent Strom offered a hearty handshake.
With the Astros' impressive history of improving the performance of pitchers they acquire, Hinch was asked recently what they would do to help Sanchez get back on track.
"We don't have magic dust," Hinch said. "There's a lot of people in the organization that go to work to try to find the one thing that can unlock people's potential."
Sanchez was a first-round draft pick of the Blue Jays in 2010 and went 15-2 with a 3.00 ERA over 30 starts in 2016. He was excited for his fresh start in Houston but also grateful for his time and opportunity with the Blue Jays. The pitcher took out a full-page ad in the Toronto Sun on Saturday to thank the team and city for their support throughout his career.
Sanchez plunked Omar Narváez with two outs in the first inning and retired the next nine batters before walking Vogelbach with two outs in the fourth. Ryan Court hit a soft grounder with two outs in the fifth but first baseman Yuli Gurriel fielded it and tossed to Sanchez, who dashed to first base just in front of Court for the third out.
Sanchez walked Mallex Smith with one out in the sixth, then retired the next two batters.
Harris walked Domingo Santana with one out in the seventh, but J.P. Crawford grounded into a double play.
Mike Fiers pitched the previous no-hitter for Houston against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 21, 2015. That gem came in his third start with the Astros, just 23 days after they obtained him in a trade, and it was his first career complete game.
Houston used six pitchers in a combined no-hitter at Yankee Stadium in 2003.
Besides the Angels' combined effort, Fiers has the only other no-hitter in the majors this season, for Oakland on May 7 against Cincinnati.
Michael Brantley had three hits and four RBIs. Jose Altuve homered for the Astros.
Marco Gonzales (12-9) allowed eight hits and four runs in five innings as the Mariners fell to 1-11 against the AL West leaders this season.
Mariners: RHP Felix Hernandez, out since May 12 with a strained right shoulder, pitched two perfect innings for Class A Everett on Friday, and Servais said Hernandez will likely throw about 45 pitches in his next rehab game.
Astros: C Robinson Chirinos was out of the lineup for a third straight game with soreness in his right shoulder.
HEY, WHERE YA GOING?
Houston pitcher Gerrit Cole was irked that some fans got up to leave in the ninth inning and yelled at a few of them who were near Houston's dugout as they headed toward the exits.
"A couple of people were kind of surprised or whatever, but I just don't think everybody was aware of what was going on," he said. "I certainly wouldn't leave. But if you want to leave, you can leave. I'm not telling you to stay or leave, I just hope that you know that it was a no-hitter."
Mariners: Seattle will use an opener Sunday but Servais hadn't yet said who it will be. After that, LHP Tommy Milone (1-5, 4.39 ERA) will make his 14th appearance of the season.
Astros: RHP Justin Verlander (14-4, 2.73 ERA) allowed two hits and struck out 13 in seven innings of a 2-0 victory over Cleveland last time out to win his fourth straight decision.