One strike is all it would have taken, and to some on the Johnson City roster, it appeared that it had already been thrown. With one runner on due to an inning-opening walk, Cardinals reliever Ronnie Shaban -- who followed Cory Jones, Michael Aldrete and Jeff Rauh -- unfurled a 1-2 pitch that froze Bluefield batter Seth Conner with two outs in the ninth.
It was called a ball.
Some disagreed with home plate umpire Jimmy Lott.
"From where I was sitting in the bullpen, it looked right down the middle," Aldrete said.
Shaban then threw a 2-2 fastball over the heart of the plate, and Conner grounded the ball up the middle for a base hit. No-hitter over, and you would have known it just by the sounds of the visiting dugout at Bluefield's Bowen Field.
"Everyone let out a scream because we all kind of wanted to it to happen," said Rauh.
Carlos Ramirez followed Conner's single with a two-RBI double. Shutout over. The Cardinals closer finally got the strikeout he was looking for when he got Christian Lopes swinging to give Johnson City a 4-2 victory.
The punchout was two batters too late for history, but that didn't seem to bother Shaban, who didn't quite recognize what was going on despite the screams.
"Honestly when the guy got the hit, it didn't even hit me," he said. "During the next batter, I looked up at the scoreboard to see what the count was, saw the hit on the board and thought, 'Well, there goes that. Let's just try to get one more out and get the win here.'"
Jones, the Cardinals' fifth-round pick in this year's Draft, was making his professional debut as the team's starter, and he showed it with his first four batters. The 6-foot-5 issued a walk, hit a batter, struck one out and had another base on balls -- a streak he attributed to first-game excitement.
"The first inning, I think I was a little too pumped," said the College of the Canyons product. "Then I got things under control, and my fastball and curveball were working pretty well. I was just overamped, but once I got over that, I was fine."
Following his opening four-batter stretch, the 20-year-old retired the remaining eight Blue Jays hitters he faced, four via the strikeout.
Aldrete, who earned his first professional win, took over for Jones in the fourth. and like the Cardinals starter, he experienced his only trouble in his first inning. After striking out Art Charles to open the fourth, the former San Jose State Spartan walked Jacob Anderson. But again like Jones, Aldrete rebounded to retire eight consecutive opponents.
The outing represented the first scoreless stretch of his career after the right-hander had surrender four earned runs on six hits over his first three innings. The biggest difference Sunday night appeared to be Aldrete's ability to keep the ball low in the strike zone.
"I don't think I threw one fastball above the knees, so obviously the command was there tonight," said the Cardinals' 39th-round selection. "The last few outings I had been up too much. The quality of the pitches was the same, but the location wasn't great. So I was working hard in batting practice and bullpens to iron out my mechanics.
"It was very reassuring. It was rough starting out as a professional and thinking, 'Should I be here?' I'm glad to be getting over that."
Rauh continued the perfect streak by retiring all three hitters he faced in the seventh. Two more walks by the 22-year-old righty put two men on with two outs in the eighth -- the first time Bluefield had a runner in scoring position since the first -- before striking out Matthew Dean to end the threat.
Unlike Jones, Aldrete and Shaban (a 33rd-round pick), Rauh was not chosen in this year's First-Year Player Draft, but after allowing just two runs on four hits in his first two outings, he's happy he chose the St. Louis organization as a free agent.
"I had been talking to the Cardinals all year long, and when I didn't get drafted, they called me and asked if I wanted a shot," Rauh said. "Of course I did, and it's worked out pretty well. I love it. I'm living the dream."
Johnson City turned to Shaban in the ninth, and after the former Virginia Tech hurler couldn't close the deal, he shrugged off the potential feat and said he wasn't kicking himself for what could have been.
"Honestly no, not really," he said. "It would've been great obviously. But if it would have been Cory or someone pitching the whole game, it would have added a little something more, I think."
Michael Knox hit a solo home run in the fourth for the Cardinals. Carson Kelly finished 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI.