Chris Nabholz knows going into tonight's game against the New York Mets (7:30, ESPN) that he's going to be hard-pressed to improve upon his last start.
Last Thursday against the Mets at Shea Stadium, the Montreal Expos lefthander, who played his college ball at Towson State, came one pitch away from a no-hitter.
Mets second baseman Tommy Herr lined a single to right in the sixth inning, --ing Nabholz's no-hit dream.
"If I had it to do over again I would have thrown him the same pitch," said Nabholz, who finished the game with three walks and six strikeouts and is 6-0 with a 2.91 ERA since being called up in early August. "It wasn't a mistake. He just hit it pretty good."
After the game the Expos were 4 1/2 games behind NL East-leading Pittsburgh and just two games behind the Mets and charging. But then came the weekend trip to Philadelphia, where the Expos dropped four straight and now trail the Pirates by an almost insurmountable seven games.
Coincidentally, the Expos' fold in the pennant chase came on the same turf that Nabholz made his major-league debut on June 11, making an amazing jump from Double A Jacksonville into the Expos' starting rotation to pitch the second game of a doubleheader.
"It was just one of those things where Buck [Rodgers, the Expos manager] said he wanted the pitcher who was doing the best in the organization at the time and that was me," said Nabholz, who was 7-2 with a 3.03 ERA in Jacksonville, Fla., before taking the field at the Vet.
Nabholz said the entire event has been romanticized a little more than he'd like.
"All I can remember is how scared I was being out there," said Nabholz, who is from Pottsville, Pa., about 80 miles north of Philadelphia. "I grew up a Phillies fan and I used to go there to see the team play. My whole family was there that night and a busload of friends also came down for the game. I have it on videotape but I haven't watched it yet."
After going five innings without earning a decision, Nabholz made the subsequent trip to St. Louis, but was returned to the minors at Triple A Indianapolis, where he had difficulties. In 10 starts he was 0-6 with a 4.83 ERA, but got called up to Montreal again when pitcher Zane Smith was traded to Pittsburgh on Aug. 8.
"This organization has treated me great," Nabholz said. "When they drafted me it was a tough decision, whether to stay at Towson or go pro, and I have no regrets about my decision. A lot of baseball people told me that Montreal was a good organization and that I was lucky, and they were right. The best part is that they're really honest -- they don't keep any secrets about where you stand in their plans."
Nabholz, 23, spent three years at Towson State, pitching two for Billy Hunter and one for current coach Mike Gottlieb, who recruited him as Hunter's assistant.
"There were a couple of schools that I was talking to, like Penn State and Bucknell, but they wanted me to play first base," said Nabholz, who hit .460 in his senior year of high school but has yet to get a hit in 15 major-league at-bats. "Towson was the only school where I knew I was going to get a chance to pitch right away and where I could play as a freshman."
Nabholz, who is 6 feet 5, was also a star on the Pottsville basketball team, and TSU basketball coach Terry Truax talked to him about playing for the Tigers.
"He and I were pretty friendly and I probably could have played if I wanted to, but I knew I needed to concentrate on baseball and pitching," Nabholz said.
It was a good thing, too, because Nabholz led the Tigers' 1988 baseball staff with a 17-10 record and was the key player on the school's only NCAA Division I Regional playoff team. The squad advanced to Miami, where Nabholz lost to the Hurricanes, 4-0.
"Looking back I think playing at Towson State really prepared me for playing professional ball," said Nabholz, who plans to complete the three semesters he needs for graduation. "Especially playing for Coach Hunter because he told us on the first day that we were adults and we were responsible for being successful. I know that at a lot of schools the coaches try to baby-sit the players but that didn't happen at Towson."
Hunter, who spent 25 years in professional baseball as a player, coach and manager, said Nabholz was "a natural" whose strength and control was bound to land him in the majors.
"When he came to us he was a thrower, kind of like Jim Palmer," Hunter said. "He had so much strength and movement on the ball but he was the kind of guy who would throw a perfect pitch with an 0-2 count on a batter. He had the ability, but he didn't know what to do with it.
"I knew during his last year here that it was just a matter of time," Hunter said. "He kept the ball down low and he was making the right pitches. The only thing that can keep him from being successful in the majors is his changeup. He needs to work on it and he has."
Nabholz said he's been bombarded with information this season, having to adjust to hitters at three levels.
"Right now I'm trying to learn the hitters in the majors," Nabholz said. "I have to rely on my catchers a lot and I shouldn't do that.
"It's amazing because at Triple A you can make a mistake and not get hurt. But here, all it takes is one mistake, even against a weak hitter, and nine out of 10 times you're going to pay the price for it."
As for being the new kid in the clubhouse, Nabholz said making friendships takes time, but he's been pleasantly surprised by the attitude of Expos veterans such as Dennis Martinez, Tim Wallach and Tim Raines.
"At first I would wait for them to say something to me, but my approach has changed," Nabholz said. "I always thought that somehow they were different. But they're not.
"As a matter of fact, they're pretty normal."