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Astros’ Ronel Blanco no-hits Blue Jays

HOUSTON – Ronel Blanco awoke on Monday anonymous, another big right-hander blending into the Houston Astros’ heralded pitching pipeline. He worked at a car wash in the Dominican Republic before receiving a $5,000 signing bonus from an organization that cornered the market on inexpensive improbabilities.

Blanco did not pitch until he turned 18. Houston signed him at age 22, ancient among the teenagers that headline international signing classes. If not for general manager Dana Brown persuading his pitching coaches to try Blanco as a starter, he might still be stowed in a minor-league bullpen. He has wowed in Dominican winter ball and taken the shuttle back and forth to Triple-A Sugar Land, all while blocked in the big leagues by the same stories he attempted to author.

“He and the whole group, they’ve met expectations but surpassed expectations beyond what we could have imagined,” Oz Ocampo said late Monday night.

Ocampo oversaw the Astros’ international scouting department at its most affordable peak. Framber Valdez signed for $10,000 under Ocampo’s watch. Cristian Javier, too. Both have blossomed into bona fide big leaguers. Blanco got half of their bonus, but can now etch his name alongside them in Astros’ lore.

In his eighth major-league start, one few expected him to make entering spring training, Blanco threw the 17th no-hitter in Astros history. He tamed the Toronto Blue Jays during a 10-0 win at Minute Maid Park on Monday night, introducing himself to an entire sport while authoring a new chapter in Houston’s cost-effective excellence.

Valdez, Javier and Blanco have started the franchise’s last four no-hitters. Javier started two of them, including the first six innings during Game 4 of the 2022 World Series. Bryan Abreu, who signed for $40,000 during Ocampo’s tenure, took over for Javier in the seventh.

“Pretty incredible,” said Ocampo, who started to receive text messages from the other scouts involved in those signings while Blanco bullied a respectable Blue Jays lineup. He watched the final outs on MLB Network.

“I certainly didn’t anticipate this,” said Ocampo, now an assistant general manager for the Miami Marlins. “He’s surpassed, I think, all our expectations because of the work ethic, because of how much he competes, and how much he cares and how consistent he’s been every single year.”

Blanco had never thrown more than six innings in a major-league game and had never crossed the 100-pitch threshold. Pitching coach Josh Miller said the team intended to keep him around 90 pitches on Monday. Blanco exited the eighth with 91. He threw 14 more in the ninth to secure one of the most unexpected pieces of pitching history in this franchise’s existence.

“It was special for me, personally,” said manager Joe Espada, who became the first skipper in major-league history to win his first career game with a no-hitter. “Getting it in that fashion, for a guy that has grinded through the minor leagues and seeing how hard he worked to perform against a really good lineup, it brings everything to another level of emotion.”

Blanco stood slim chances of making this team out of spring training. If not for injuries to Justin Verlander and José Urquidy, Blanco may be in the minor leagues or a member of Houston’s bullpen. He did not officially claim a rotation spot until his final exhibition start of the spring — the same day he and his wife, Yanissa, welcomed a baby girl. Blanco still reported to the ballpark that afternoon to make his start.

“I see it as a life changing experience,” Blanco said through an interpreter. “I dedicate this to my family and my daughter.”

Uncertainty even surrounded when Blanco would pitch. Both he and fellow starter J.P. France were expecting babies at the same time. The team penciled France in to start Sunday against the New York Yankees and Blanco for Monday, but were ready to reverse the assignments if France’s wife, Jessica, went into labor.

France finished his Sunday start without issue. Houston’s 4-3 loss dropped the club to 0-4, its worst start since 2011. Both Abreu and closer Josh Hader appeared in the game, too, rendering them unavailable for Monday’s series-opener against Toronto. Few of the remaining relievers inspire much confidence, putting an onus on Blanco to provide a boost.

Blanco provided more than enough. Leadoff hitter George Springer worked two walks against him, including one to begin the game. No other Blue Jay reached base. After needing 19 pitches to finish the first, Blanco needed fewer than 15 to complete the eight ensuing frames. Toronto took 59 swings against him. Twenty of them were whiffs.

Blanco controlled the Blue Jays with a wicked changeup he threw at will. All seven of his strikeouts concluded upon it. Half of the 20 whiffs arrived against it. The pitch comprised just nine percent of his major-league arsenal last season, but he spent spring training refining it in hopes of making his repertoire more unpredictable.

Assistant pitching coach Bill Murphy took a trip to the Dominican Republic, where he tinkered with Blanco’s grip on the pitch.

“It’s gotten more consistent,” Miller said. “Still somewhat inconsistent, but nasty when it’s right.”

Added catcher Yainer Diaz: “Every single time I called it in spring training, he always commanded it well. I knew that was a pitch that he worked a lot on in the offseason. When we got to the bullpen, I saw his slider, usually he pulls it a little bit when he warms up, but I saw he was throwing and commanding it very well, so that gave me the confidence to be able to call the slider and changeup and mix both of them well.”

Blanco threw 36 changeups, 31 four-seam fastballs and spun 34 sliders. Worry about his long-term viability as a starter always centered around a lack of a third pitch, perhaps preventing him from navigating a lineup more than once. Monday may have calmed most of those concerns.

Toronto hit four balls harder than 90 mph against Blanco. Only three batted balls reached the outfield. None of the others traveled more than 192 feet. No stellar defensive plays were required, but two late-inning ground balls still posed a threat.

To start the eighth, catcher Alejandro Kirk crushed a 100.7 mph grounder back up the middle. No Blue Jays hitter struck a ball harder all night. Blanco instinctively reached up to deflect the baseball. It rolled away into no-man’s land.

Second baseman Mauricio Dubón darted to his left, scooped it on the carom and completed the putout of a plodding catcher who covers just 23.7 feet per second when he sprints. Afterward, first baseman José Abreu acknowledged the luck that Kirk hit the ball and not a faster runner.

Two easier outs left Blanco three away from history. He sprinted out for the ninth inning with a sparse crowd rising to its crescendo. Adrenaline pumped so much that he bypassed the umpires’ sticky stuff check before being summoned back.

“When he was warming up (in the ninth), he pulled both fastballs and I thought ‘Oh man, he’s nervous,’” catcher Yainer Diaz said through an interpreter.

Blanco admitted as much. With one out, Cavan Biggio belted a sharp grounder that forced Abreu to his backside. He tossed harmlessly to Blanco, who covered the bag to put himself one out from history.

Blanco walked Springer again, prompting Houston to get left-hander Parker Mushinski up in its bullpen as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. dug in. Blanco’s pitch count ballooned and the team only wanted him to face one more hitter. Guerrero chopped a two-strike changeup to second base, ensuring he’d be the last.

(Top photo of Ronel Blanco: Logan Riely/Getty Images)

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