Clinging to a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning on Tuesday, Alex Cobb of the San Francisco Giants fired his 125th pitch of the night — an 89-mile-an-hour splitter — and Cincinnati’s Spencer Steer lined it to center field to double in a run.
Then a curious thing happened: Cobb stayed on the mound.
His team was winning at home, 6-1, he had already thrown the most pitches in a start this season, and there was a runner in scoring position. But Cobb, 35, was left in the game to face Elly De La Cruz, the Reds’ rookie sensation, who is known for tape-measure home runs and jaw-dropping speed.
“The right thing to do is to let a guy who’s going like that continue to go,” Giants Manager Gabe Kapler told reporters after the game — a statement that seemed out of step with the way managers have handled pitchers in recent years.
Cobb continued to go. He fell behind De La Cruz, 3-1, then froze him, getting called strikes on an 88 m.p.h. splitter and a 93 m.p.h. sinker to end the game.
With that, Cobb had the sixth complete game of his 12-season career and first one-hitter. And he joined a small trend of pitchers being allowed to throw deep into games when pursuing an individual goal.
In Cobb’s case, the leniency was extreme: His 131 pitches were the most in a game by any pitcher since 2019.
“Still fun,” Cobb told reporters of losing the no-hitter. “I wasn’t mad, sad, just ‘all right, let’s finish it off’ kind of thing.”
In a sport that has grown increasingly cautious in using starting pitchers, the game felt like an extreme throwback. Last month, Justin Verlander, who has three no-hitters, lamented the rise of combined no-hitters and short starts by pitchers in general by wondering what baseball was losing by not developing pitchers who could throw deep into games.
“I hope we don’t look up years from now and see an entire league of just guys who nobody knows their names,” Verlander said.
Since Verlander’s comments, however, a few managers seem to have gotten the message that people want to see starters perform incredible feats.
On Aug. 1, Framber Valdez of the Houston Astros threw a solo no-hitter, facing the minimum number of batters in a 93-pitch masterpiece. On Aug. 9, Philadelphia’s Michael Lorenzen, who was converted from a reliever into a starter last season, was allowed to run up 124 pitches in a no-hitter against Washington. And on Aug. 12, Sandy Alcántara of the Miami Marlins, last year’s winner of the National League Cy Young Award, threw 116 pitches in a complete-game win over the Yankees.
To be clear, long starts are still unusual. Pitchers are averaging slightly less than five and a third innings per start this season, and Kapler’s rotation brings up the rear, averaging just under four and two-thirds.
The numbers are skewed some by the occasional use of openers, who are sent out to throw one or two innings before handing the ball to a reliever. But they reflect the dual belief that pitchers lose effectiveness in their third time through the batting order and that the health of pitchers outweighs individual accomplishments.
One of the more extreme cases of caution came last season when Clayton Kershaw, the All-Star left-hander for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was pulled from a perfect game after seven innings despite having thrown only 80 pitches. A chilly, rainy day and Kershaw’s having recently returned from injury were factors in that decision. But it also fit a pattern for Manager Dave Roberts, who has pulled multiple starters from no-hit bids over the years, including Rich Hill, who was perfect through seven innings in 2016.
“Every decision I make is for the best interest of the player, their health and the ball club, because there’s a lot of people that are cheering for the Dodgers, not only just for today and Clayton to throw a no-hitter, but for the Dodgers to win the World Series,” Roberts told reporters. “For us to do that, we need him healthy.”
While Cobb may not be Kershaw, he is a key rotation piece for a team that is in line for the N.L.’s third wild card, a half-game ahead of Arizona and two games ahead of Cincinnati. With that in mind, it could be relevant how Valdez, Lorenzen and Alcántara have performed since their sensational starts: They have combined for a 5.85 E.R.A. over 60 innings.