Six days had passed since Mark Holliman's last start, and it showed in his pre-game bullpen session. Once Holliman stalked off the mound in disgust, catcher Casey McGehee muttered under his breath to Tennessee Smokies pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn, "It's gonna be a long day." McGehee couldn't have been more wrong.
Holliman snapped a four-game losing streak by tossing a seven-inning no-hitter against the Huntsville Stars on June 21, and he also hit a two-run homer in the fifth to earn MiLB.com's Double-A Single-Game Performance of the Year.
The then-23-year-old right-hander had been awful over his previous five starts -- four of which were losses -- posting a 5.96 ERA in 25 2/3 innings. Rain postponed the first game of the five-game series between the Smokies and the Stars on June 19, leading to a hot and steamy Thursday doubleheader in eastern Tennessee.
When Holliman warmed up for his start in the bullpen, his control was lacking and his stuff wasn't crisp, leading the trio of Holliman, McGehee and Lewallyn to wonder what was in store.
"He didn't say this to me after I finished throwing," Holliman said. "Casey just told me after the game that he told Dennis that it was going to be a long one since I flat out (stunk)."
Bullpen sessions aren't always the best indicators of how a pitcher will perform at game time. The lousy workout in the Smokies Park bullpen served as a wakeup call for the former Ole Miss pitcher, who was able to refocus himself and calm down once he got into the game.
The first two innings were remarkable as the burly 6-footer recorded two strikeouts and allowed only one ball out of the infield -- a lineout to left field by Michael Brantley in the first. Holliman started the third with a leadoff walk to Adam Heether, prompting little more than a shrug from the laid-back hurler.
"That didn't really bother me much," Holliman said about the base on balls. "I think I just stepped off the mound, took a couple deep breaths and went back to attacking the hitter. By that time, I got myself into a pretty good groove and I could tell that I was really focused, so (the walk) didn't seem to matter that much."
Following that lapse, Holliman made short work of the next three batters, retiring each of them to get out of the inning. Then he retired three more in the fourth, and another three in the fifth. The game was just over an hour long and the Smokies had themselves a no-hitter going in the sixth. Holliman and opposing starter Corey Thurman had been cutting through their opposing lineups so fast that Holliman was lucky he even noticed what was happening.
"This was definitely the fastest game we had all year," the Chicago Cubs' 2005 third-round pick recalled of the one-hour, 29-minute affair. "I really can't remember any game I've been in as a pro where it went by that fast.
"It probably worked to my advantage that it was so fast because so many things can happen while you're sitting in the dugout during the other half-innings," he added. "Your body can start cooling off and getting tight, you lose some momentum, you start overthinking about what's going on and your mind loses [the no-hitter] for you before you even get back on the mound."
Holliman relied on his lively, low-90s fastball, which not only set up his breaking balls and off-speed pitches, but also helped him get 12 Stars batters to ground out. At one point, Holliman had an assist on four consecutive plays stretching from the fourth inning with one out until Heether flew out in the fifth with two out. But it was what Holliman did in the bottom of the inning that truly stood out.
Jorge Cortes was standing on second after a leadoff double and Holliman was at the plate with two strikes on him. Thurman grooved a fastball down the middle and the former Rebel took a mighty hack.
A month before, Holliman had hit a two-run homer against the Mississippi Braves during a 6-1 win, and he finished the year with a .229 average and seven RBIs. Despite being a good-hitting pitcher, Holliman was still stunned that it went over the wall in left-center field.
"To be honest with you, I thought that was a ground-rule double," Holliman said. "As soon as I hit it, I just took off and didn't bother to see where it went, since I didn't want to show up the other pitcher. Once I got near second, I saw that the outfielders were just walking away from the fence, so I slowed down, but then the ump signaled for a home run.
"On my first homer, everyone basically just stayed in the dugout and didn't make a big deal," he added. "This time, there was a whole mob waiting for me outside of the dugout."
Still, there were six outs to go and the entire ballpark knew exactly what was going on.
"There was a pretty good crowd on hand at the beginning of the game," Holliman said, "but more and more people came since there still was the second game coming up. And you could tell people were getting more and more into every pitch and every out. The crowd got louder and louder after each out."
The crowd must have been frenzied when Holliman struck out Steven Sollmann for the second out in the seventh. At home, family members listened to the broadcast on the internet. Once Brendan Katin grounded out to third baseman Matt Craig for the final out, the Smokies jubilantly stormed out of the dugout, surrounding the Memphis area native and tried -- unsuccessfully -- to lift him onto their shoulders.
"Without a doubt, this was the greatest moment in my career," Holliman said. "I never threw a no-hitter before, and I was lucky enough that my wife, Jessica, was in the stands to see it. When the guys ran out to the mound, I was speechless."
Maybe it would be a good idea for all of Holliman's future catchers to whisper about poor bullpen sessions more often.