Great Moments in Astros History: Nolan Ryan’s Fifth No-Hitter


Saturday September 26, 1981 was a typically balmy late-summer day in Houston, TX.  The temperature was comfortably in the 80s, as it had been for the entire month, and the game was also televised as NBC’s game of the week, as Astros Daily noted in its article on the game.  A crowd of 32,115 was in attendance at the Astrodome, their appetite for baseball whetted by the events of the early part of the season.

The Astros had started the season slowly, losing twelve of their first fifteen games.  A mid-season strike had disrupted the schedule and cost MLB 712 games in June, July and August.  Doug Pappas wrote on labor fights in MLB and covered the ’81 strike for ESPN here.  By early September, the Astros had reached five games over .500 and were looking to challenge for the NL West title.

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Thirty-four year old pitcher Nolan Ryan was 9-4 for the season.  Ryan had returned to his native Texas in 1980, having spent the early years of his career with the New York Mets before moving to the California Angels for the 1972 season.  Whilst with the Angels, Ryan would throw four no-hitters, equalling the record of the great Sandy Koufax, although one of Koufax’s no-hitters was also a perfect game, one of the few feats that Ryan never achieved in his otherwise stellar career.  Coincidentally, it was Koufax’s Dodgers who were in town for a three game series.  The Dodgers had taken game one 3-0 on Friday evening, with All-Star pitcher Burt Hooten receiving the win.

Despite the loss, the Astros remained six games back in the NL West and with their ace on the mound (Ryan would end up with an ERA of 1.69 and finish on 11-5 for the season), they were confident of clawing back some ground on the Dodgers and the ultimate NL West champion Cincinnati Reds.

As early as the second inning, Ryan walked Steve Garvey, the lead-off man before striking out Pedro Guerrero and Mike Scioscia.  A wild pitch advanced Garvey to third before Ron Roenicke pop fouled to Howe.  The third also began with a walk, Derrel Thomas leading off the inning and, after another two strikeouts, Ken Landreaux walked before Dusty Baker ground out.  Baker again ground out to end the ninth and seal the record breaking no-hitter.

The no-no included eleven strikeouts and this was the 135th game of his career that Ryan had managed to strike out ten or more batters.  He ended the game with 3,240 career strikeouts, leaving him behind Walter Johnson (3,508) and Gaylord Perry (still active with the Atlanta Braves and on 3,327).

Ryan told the New York Times:

"“This is by far the most important of my no-hitters…I went into the game feeling like I had to do a good job and this turned into one of the biggest games of the year…when it’s all over, this will probably be the one I favor most, being we’re in a pennant race, being on national TV, being at home and having my mother here.”"

The Astros faithful had seen a no-hitter in April 1979 when Ken Forsch went the distance.  It was the third no-hitter of the 1981 season, Cleveland’s Len Barker and Montreal’s Charlie Lea achieving the feat within the same week in May.

Ryan’s next start was against Cincinnati on October 2 and he gave up seven hits, but the Astros took advantage of eleven walks to improve their advantage in the NL West to a game and a half with an 8-1 victory.

In April 1989, Ryan came within two outs of his sixth no-hitter, then taking another no-hit bid into the ninth inning in August of that year, but wouldn’t have to wait long, recording it in June 1990 in a 5-0 victory over the Athletics.  Number seven happened in May 1991.

Watch some footage of the no-no via youtube here.

Read about Ryan’s return to Houston here.