On the brink of big league history, he was happy to welcome this bit of luck: expecting to see two-time batting champion Christian Yelich in the on-deck circle, Mills looked over and saw his backup instead.
"That kind of surprised me," he said.
This one surprised just about everyone.
Mills cruised through baseball's second no-hitter this season in just the 15th start of his career, completing the gem in a 12-0 romp over the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday.
Mills got Jace Peterson — who replaced Yelich, the 2018 NL MVP, on defense late in the blowout — to hit a routine grounder to shortstop Javier Baez with two outs in the ninth. Baez completed the play, and the Cubs swarmed around Mills, tearing off his cap and pulling at the smiling right-hander's uniform after his first career complete game.
"It just hasn't really hit me yet," the 28-year-old said. "It's kind of crazy, I didn't even know how to celebrate. Just something that all came together today. Obviously a memory I'll have forever."
Mills (5-3) threw 114 pitches and hardly had any close calls in Chicago's 16th no-hitter. Avisail Garcia almost got to him twice, hitting a line drive to right in the first and nearly legging out an infield hit to shortstop in the sixth. Garcia crossed first and immediately called to the Brewers dugout for a review, but after a very brief stoppage, the Brewers opted not to challenge.
Mills would have faced Garcia again in the ninth, but Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell pulled the 2017 All-Star along with Yelich in the eighth with his team trailing big. Mills struck out Garcia's replacement, Tyrone Taylor, for the second out in the ninth.
"Taylor hitting there and then Peterson, I had no idea they were in the game," Mills said.
Mills struck out five and walked three. His five strikeouts are the fewest in a Cubs no-hitter since Ken Holtzman in 1969. He only induced five swings and misses, tied with Oakland's Dallas Braden during his perfect game in 2010 for fewest in a no-hitter since at least 1988, per Stats Inc.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 13, 2020
"I can promise you it was not a slow heartbeat," Mills said. "I had to kind of take a seat and calm myself down. It was tough. I had to take a lot of deep breaths and get into a good mindset."
Chicago White Sox ace Lucas Giolito threw baseball's other no-hitter this season against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 15.
Mills was a 22nd-round draft pick by Kansas City in 2012 and had Tommy John surgery in 2013. He had started just six major league games prior to this season but cracked Chicago's rotation because of an injury to Jose Quintana.
He went 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA in his first two starts, struggled in his next five but pitched solidly Tuesday against the Reds with six shutout innings. The no-hitter dropped his ERA to 3.93.
Not bad for a player who didn't get a college scholarship. Mills was a walk-on at Tennessee-Martin.
"Never give up," Mills said. "You know, some people are going to tell you you can't do it or you're not good enough. That's just one person. So just keep working. Just persevere."
Mills happily took high-fives as teammates got close during the celebration — a no-no no-no amid the coronavirus pandemic that didn't concern players in the moment.
Their yells of congratulations echoed around the empty stadium, which has yet to have Brewers fans in attendance for a no-hitter. Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano had thrown the only no-hitter at Miller Park, against the Houston Astros on Sept. 14, 2008. The Cubs played the Astros in Milwaukee because of damage in the Houston area from Hurricane Ike.
Baez was anxious to be part of history as the ground ball for the final out came his way.
"I just wanted the ball hit to me," Baez said. "Then I was making sure the ball was in my glove."
Mills completed the Cubs' first no-hitter since Jake Arrieta did it twice in eight months: at the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 30, 2015, and at Cincinnati on April 21, 2016.
Milwaukee had not been held hitless since Detroit's Justin Verlander pitched the first of his three no-hitters on June 12, 2007. It's the fourth time the Brewers have been no-hit.
9/14/08 ? Carlos Zambrano throws the first no-hitter in Miller Park history.
9/13/20 ? Alec Mills throws the second no-hitter in Miller Park history. pic.twitter.com/Q3Y4HVrOzx
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 13, 2020
Held without a hit through three innings, the Cubs broke through against Milwaukee in the fourth against starter Adrian Houser (1-5) due in large part to shoddy fielding by the Brewers. Kyle Schwarber drew a one-out walk, Baez reached on an error and Jason Heyward followed with a bloop double to left to drive in a run.
With the infield in, Jason Kipnis hit a ball directly to Brewers second baseman Keston Hiura, who had it slip out of his hand as he tried to rush a throw to the plate, allowing a run to score.
Victor Caratini followed with a run-scoring bloop single and Ian Happ connected for a two-run single as the Cubs scored five runs in the inning, all unearned.
"Nothing went right today. We didn't play a good game," Counsell said. "We played a poor game and we lost. We have to turn the page and know that there's still a lot of important baseball left in front of us."
David Bote's two-run homer later in the fifth extended the lead to 9-0. Caratini's run-scoring double in the seventh put the Cubs up 10-0. Chicago added a pair of runs in the ninth off Orlando Arcia, the Brewers shortstop who came on to pitch the final inning.
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