‘What just happened?’: Alec Mills, Cubs reflect on 2-year anniversary of historic outing
Getting a 10-month-old baby to sleep is no small task, let alone for first-time parents.
For Alec and Paige Mills, being able to put Carter to bed was a mini win, especially for Alec, who had played a game earlier in the day in Milwaukee, then had the 90-mile drive back down to Chicago.
So, Alec did what any young parent would do — he let out a deep breath and sat down on his couch alongside Paige.
“Holy [smokes], what just happened?” Mills said in disbelief.
“You just threw a no-hitter,” Paige responded.
“Oh my god,” Mills said.
It was the first time in the aftermath of his no-hitter on September 13, 2020, that the achievement dawned on him. In the strangest season in Major League Baseball’s history, Mills threw the 16th no-hitter in Cubs franchise history.
[READ MORE: How Alec Mills became a part of baseball history]
Mills was an unlikely candidate to throw such a gem, as he made just his 15th career major league start that day, and it was the first time he had pitched more than 7 innings in a game.
On the 2-year anniversary of his no-hitter, we caught up with Mills, his teammates and coaches to reminisce on the historic moment.
A crucial catch
The center field walls at American Family Field make it a tricky place to navigate, even for the most talented of outfielders. The wall wreaked havoc on the Brewers earlier this season during Seiya Suzuki’s inside-the-park home run.
“A little bit of a weird center field there with the angles,” said Ian Happ, who was the Cubs’ starting center fielder the day of the historic feat.
In a no-hitter, you need things to fall your way.
“There’s always, it feels like, one great play in a no-hitter,” manager David Ross said.
In the 2nd inning with 1 out, Jedd Gyorko came up to bat. Happ played Gyorko ever so slightly to the pull side and the righty crushed a 102-mph liner to right center field.
“[I] got a really good jump off the bat and just tracking it down,” Happ said.
The ball seemingly looked destined to fall in the center field warning track just ahead of one of the pesky corners in the outfield. But Happ’s jump and read were perfect — and they needed to be — as he tracked down the ball and caught it on the warning track dirt.
“It was kinda early in the game, it was just a catch,” Happ said. “I remember it pretty vividly.”
That’s the sentiment Mills felt.
“At that moment it wasn’t really a saving a no-hitter thing,” Mills said.
The Brewers had plenty of hard-hit balls, with 11 batted-ball events resulting in exit velocities of over 95 mph, but Gyorko’s was the only that seemingly caused any worry that afternoon.
“Obviously if you look at the metrics and all the hard-hit balls — a lot of those are groundballs. That’s what I do,” Mills said.
It was still the “one great play” that Ross mentioned occurs in a no-hitter.
“Millsy gave me a ball after the no-hitter that said ‘Nice catch,’” Happ said.
As the game grew on, Mills settled in — and, boy, did he feel it.
“To be honest with you, from like the 5th inning on, I thought I executed better than I had all game, locating well,” Mills said. “I would say obviously the last couple of innings stick out. That’s when it kinda really hits home, like, ‘hey this is a possibility; this might happen.’”
He kept the Brewers hitters guessing that day, inducing groundballs, liners and racking up just 5 strikeouts to 3 walks.
Mills’ teammates started feeling it, too.
“I remember the 5th inning is what stands out to me when I was like, ‘He’s got something brewing,’” Bote said.
A contact-oriented pitcher, Mills’ teammates wanted to help close out the deal. There can be a sense of pressure that extends beyond the pitcher and onto the fielders, who know how important it is to play their position and convert outs.
“You definitely want the ball in that situation; you wanna be a part of it,” Bote said. “I wanna be a part of it and into the game and [have] groundballs.”
The possibility was spreading throughout the dugout in Milwaukee but for Ross, he was still managing a game and trying to wrap up the NL Central crown.
In the 6th inning, the game was well in hand, with the Cubs leading 9-0. So, Ross was planning on getting some of his players some rest as they geared up for the stretch run of the season and the playoffs.
Jason Heyward was one of the leading candidates for Ross to get off his feet. Heyward was having a strong season, posting a .947 OPS and having played in 40 of the team’s 48 games up to that point.
“I talked to J-Hey and was gonna get him off his feet cause we were blowing ‘em out and he was like, ‘I’m not coming out of this game until Millsy comes out of this game,’” Ross said. “That’s J-Hey’s heart. He’s such a good teammate. That was like, ‘alright, these boys are in it so let’s just go.’”
But it was still up to Mills to get to the finish line.
“I think it’s the 6th, 7th inning when it’s like I think I kinda looked at the pitch count and was like ‘OK, let’s make sure [they] actually let me do this one. And two, like this can happen. I just need to execute the rest of the way down the stretch and figure out how to do this,’” Mills said.
During a no-hitter, much of the attention – deservedly so – falls on the pitcher and catcher. But there’s a crew, beyond even the players on the mound that goes into effort — like the coaching staff.
Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, catching and strategy coach Mike Borzello and bench coach Andy Green played just as important of a role. It was Hottovy and Borzello who developed the plan of attack for Mills and Green who maneuvered and shuffled the fielders for each batter and had them in the right position to convert balls into outs.
“Tommy, Mike Borzello, especially with Millsy, put a very precise plan with how to attack guys,” Green said. “Those two guys along with Millsy and [Victor Caratini] catching, I mean they did the bulk of the work and then the defense made some plays when we had to.”
But with 2 outs in the 9th, Green had a real dilemma.
One batter, Jace Peterson, stood between Mills and history. So, Green debated where to position shortstop Javy Báez. Should he be to the left side of the second base bag or the right side?
“I think Jace Peterson’s a 50-50 shift candidate,” Green said. “It’s an absolute tossup.”
On the 114th pitch of the game, Caratini called for a sinker down, which would run to the arm side, meaning it would make sense for Báez be to the left of the bag.
“Breaking stuff’s gonna get rolled over,” Green said.
Peterson swung and hit a 99.5-mph grounder to the left side of the second base bag.
“I didn’t really know where Javy was,” Mills said. “When it went by me, it’s like, ‘oh crap.’”
Luckily, Báez was shifted in the right spot and the ball was hit right at him. He let out a yell as he rifled the ball to Anthony Rizzo for the final out, cementing Mills’ place in history.
“Javy’s a guy that he wants the ball in that moment,” Mills said. “He loves that. That’s why he wants to go out and play defense for everybody. I think for me, it couldn’t have been hit to a better person to finish it off. It was cool.”
Socially distant celebration
As the final out was recorded, Mills watched the play unfold, pumped his right hand into his glove and stuck his tongue out in celebration.
“I don’t know why I did that,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve never been known to do that. There wasn’t too much in that moment that I really remember from as soon as the groundball hit Javy’s mitt and he threw it across and then probably till the on-field interviews, I don’t remember much about that moment.
“It’s just a whirlwind. Obviously, it’s special to just kinda let loose.”
The rest of the team gathered on the mound around Mills and Caratini who embraced.
Mills had postgame interviews after the final out was recorded and was doused with water from a cooler. As he reached the dugout, he could hear the raucous clubhouse waiting for him to enter. As for the postgame celebration, Mills didn’t remember too much, so it was up to his teammates to make the memory last.
“We’re all there with beer cans and shots ready to just celebrate what he did and just give a big standing ovation. We just clapped and said, ‘Hey, that doesn’t happen all the time,’” Bote said. “It’s such a rare thing. It’s just a cool moment for him and it’s very exciting to be a part of it for sure.”
For Ross, it was his first no-hitter as a manager, after catching the Cubs’ last no-hitter, Jake Arrieta’s gem against the Reds on April 21, 2016.
“It is a special moment for me. Always connected in that and managing that and my name is on that lineup card that he has,” Ross said. “Just really, really cool and that’s what I thought about afterwards, like, ‘Wow, I just managed a no-hitter.’ And really, I didn’t have to do anything. Wasn’t much to do. He was in control the whole way. It was good.”
Paige wanted to make sure Alec never forgets September 13, 2020.
So, she had a scrapbook made with clippings from all the headlines commemorating the milestone. On the cover of the scrapbook is a video player that has all 27 outs. But Mills hasn’t really sat down to watch the biggest game of his life.
“One of those days I’ll sit down and watch it all,” Mills admitted.
Mills admitted he’s “pretty modest”, so he’s not one to bring up the moment with teammates or friends too often.
“I mean every once in a while, I’ll drop something just to be that guy,” Mills said with a smile.
He’s well within his rights. Some of the game’s greatest pitchers have never done what Mills accomplished.
“It’s funny, people always claim, ‘luckiest no-hitter, blah, blah, blah,’” Mills said. “I don’t care. You still threw a no-hitter.”
Maybe, just maybe, the day he watches it will be when Carter is older. Then, the pair can sit down on the couch, watch the game and remember the day when Carter’s dad was untouchable.
“That’ll be something we can watch when he’s older and stuff, so that’ll be cool,” Mills said.
And Mills won’t be in disbelief. Carter, Paige and Alec will know exactly what he did on September 13, 2020.