Vanden Hurk was vying to become the fifth pitcher in Florida's 14-plus-year history to throw a no-hitter. The bid was denied by Yunel Escobar, an Atlanta rookie also appearing in his fifth career game. Escobar rolled a double along the left-field line to lead off the bottom of the seventh.
"His ERA is [8.50], but he's given us some good innings," Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He's a special kid."
Vanden Hurk's last start came for Double-A Carolina on Thursday. He was promoted because the Marlins needed a starter for the extra game on Tuesday. In four prior outings, split between stints at Carolina, Vanden Hurk's performance netted him a 12.75 ERA.
Two particularly rough outings came against Atlanta, during which he allowed eight earned runs in 3 1/3 innings.
While the future of any spot starter is always in doubt, Vanden Hurk made a strong case to stick in the Majors while also reversing his fortunes against the Braves. He retired 14 straight before a fourth-inning walk to Edgar Renteria, then he retired nine in a row after that.
"When I went back down to the Minors, I worked with the pitching coach [Scott Mitchell] on mechanics, quickening the tempo and working down in the strike zone," Vanden Hurk said. "I think today I was more down in the strike zone and working with command of the fastball."
Vanden Hurk worked mostly off his 94-mph fastball, a pitch he kept low and on the corners. Atlanta's hitters took several big cuts at the heater, but they usually produced foul balls or lazy fly balls to the outfield. Matt Diaz, Atlanta's eighth hitter, was the first to see more than four pitches in an at-bat.
Marlins catcher Matt Treanor set up a game plan with the young right-hander before the contest. It was a plan Vanden Hurk executed to a tee.
"You get a good feel of what a guy has in the bullpen before the game," Treanor said. "His fastball was live, and he has a big curveball. He actually told me he liked his slider better than the curveball, but once we got out there, I was feeling like the opposite. But as soon as he got done with his bullpen, I was excited to see how well he was throwing."
Vanden Hurk followed Escobar's double with another walk to Renteria. At that point, Gonzalez called on Taylor Tankersley to preserve a 3-0 lead. Tankersley went from fan to participant in a hurry.
"I didn't move seats until he gave up that hit," Tankersley said. "You try to stay in the same spot when someone has a no-hitter -- but I'm proud of Vandy."
Nobody talked to Vanden Hurk between innings, except fellow starter Dontrelle Willis, who shuns superstition.
When Tankersley and Matt Lindstrom got Florida out of the seventh, and the Marlins scored two in the eighth, there was no jinxing the fact that Vanden Hurk was on his way to his first Major League win. The milestone came in front of his mother, who made the nine-hour flight from the Netherlands to watch her son pitch what is, to this point, the game of his life.
"I knew through five innings that it was going pretty good," Vanden Hurk said. "I knew I hadn't given up anything, but I wasn't worried about that. I was worried about keeping guys off base so we could win the ballgame."
Florida struck early against Atlanta starter John Smoltz and took the lead for good. Miguel Cabrera hit a solo homer on the first pitch of the second inning, a 450-foot blast that struck the hitter's background in center. In the fourth, Hanley Ramirez doubled and scored.
Smoltz didn't look like himself from the start. He uncharacteristically left many pitches up in the strike zone, a component that produced eight fly-ball outs during his six innings. Smoltz, seemingly healthy after leaving his last start with an aggravation of a pinky injury, allowed three hits and two earned runs.
"He commands the outer half of the plate real well and moves the ball around and mixes up his pitches," said Treanor, who singled off Smoltz in the third. "He got into some deeper counts tonight -- not to say he was behind a lot -- but when you get into deeper counts and guys see you more, maybe that's why we hit him a little better."
Like Atlanta in the first game, Florida won despite the pitching matchup overwhelmingly favoring the opposition. In Game 1, the Braves didn't score against Florida starter Sergio Mitre, but they connected for back-to-back home runs against Renyel Pinto.
Buddy Carlyle picked up the win in that game, his first since Sept. 9, 1999, by allowing one hit in seven innings. He promptly was sent to Triple-A Richmond following his start.
"That's baseball," Treanor said. "You can go out there against a Hall of Famer and do really well, and get shut out by a guy in his first time out."
Carlyle was good, maybe better than good, but Vanden Hurk stole the show. The righty struck out just three, but he always was in control.
Luck appeared to be on his side for most of the night. Ramirez made two nice plays behind him at shortstop, and a ball sliced down the left-field line by Kelly Johnson in the sixth inning went foul by a few inches.
"Great defense behind me," Vanden Hurk said. "I was just thinking about throwing the ball downhill, pounding the strike zone and go from there."