The Night Odell Jones Nearly Made History: The Greatest Pitching Performance by a Brewer You’ve Never Heard Of
A struggling team with a banged-up ace and few other options led to a journeyman pitcher nearly tossing one of the most unlikely no-hitters in Major League history. It was May 28, 1988. The Brewers had tailed off after a hot start to the season, dropping 12 of their last 17 games. They arrived in Cleveland the day before for a weekend series against the surging Indians, who were chasing the Yankees for first place in the AL East. Mired in a historic stretch of baseball futility, the Cleveland faithful were out in full force. For the opening game of the series, over 37,000 came out to see the Tribe top the Brewers 6-3. On Saturday night, more than 38,000 were on hand.
It was Milwaukee ace Teddy Higuera’s turn in the rotation, but a sudden attack of back spasms made him a late scratch. Manager Tom Trebelhorn, his rotation sapped by injuries, handed the ball to 35-year-old right hander Odell Jones. Jones was pitching decently for the Brewers out of the bullpen, but had not started a Major League game since 1981 and had spent time with 14 different professional teams over the previous 16 seasons. He hadn’t pitched in the majors at all in 1987 and was only signed by the Brewers because of the endorsement of Trebelhorn, who managed Jones in Portland in 1982. Jones was glad for the spot-start and hoped he could pitch well enough to give his team a shot at a win.
In the first inning, Jones got the Indians three up, three down thanks to a diving stab by second baseman Jim Gantner on a Willie Upshaw liner. In the second, he coaxed two pop-ups and then got Brook Jacoby to line out to center after a ten-pitch battle. In the third, he worked a pair of weak ground outs around a three-pitch strikeout. The fourth, fifth, and sixth innings all went similarly – three Cleveland batters, three Cleveland outs. After a Greg Brock double in the top of the seventh, Jones walked back out to the mound with 2-0 nothing lead and a run of zeros along the Indians’ line of the box score.
Everyone in the park knew what was going on. But Jones might have been the one who was most amazed by it. “I kept looking up at the scoreboard and saying, ‘What am I doing? What in the world am I doing?’” he said later. What he was doing was pitching the greatest game of his career. While he had always been known as a “big arm” pitcher, it was his control that had kept him bouncing around organized baseball for most of two decades. But that night in Cleveland, Jones was hitting the low 90s with his fastball and making all of his spots. Often undone by bases on balls, he had reached a three-ball count only once on the evening. In the seventh, facing Julio Franco, Upshaw, and Joe Carter for the third time of the night, he fanned Franco, got Upshaw on a booming fly to center, and blew away Carter on a four-pitch strikeout.
With one out in the eighth, Jones finally gave a flash of mortality, just missing on a full count to Mel Hall to lose the perfect game. But he quickly regained himself and got Jacoby to fly to left and coaxed Pat Tabler into a ground out. After a 1-2-3 Brewers ninth, Jones strode back out to the mound to an ovation from the 38,000 Cleveland partisans. “I was very, very tired,” he said of returning for the ninth. But he was determined to take his shot at history. “I was going for it. I knew if I let my mind slip, I was going to lose it.”
Running on fumes, Jones worked pinch hitter Dave Clark to a 2-2 count before he got him swinging for the first out. Then, Cleveland manager Doc Edwards sent the one man to the plate that Jones did not want to face, infielder Ron Washington. Pinch-hitting for shortstop Jay Bell, Washington had only seen Jones once before in the majors – he got a hit – but Jones was all-too familiar with the 35-year-old Washington from their various travels in the minors and winter leagues. “I knew he’d get a hit,” Jones said. “Against me, he always does.”
Jones managed a 1-1 count against Washington before the pinch hitter looped a little liner over the shortstop for the first Indians hit of the evening. When Trebelhorn made the long walk to the mound to pull Jones, the crowd booed loudly, wishing to see him get a shot at finishing the game and the shutout. But Jones was happy to leave as he did. After the game, he admitted he was “not physically ready to go nine innings yet” and had pushed himself just for the sake of going for the no-hitter. What he ended up with was a 8.1 inning gem and his first win as a starting pitcher in seven years. It was the thrill of a career for Jones, who couldn’t fall asleep that night until past 3 am. “I was still so wired,” he said.
Jones got one more start, the following week against the Angels in Milwaukee, but could not make it out of the fourth inning, allowing four runs and walking three. With the promotion of prospect Don August, Jones was bumped back to the bullpen and working mostly long relief for the rest of the year. Jones pitched for four more years after the 1988 season, bouncing between the minors, the Mexican League, and the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association.
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