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Phil Humber and Pitching Perfection

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

Phil Humber’s gem only proves to me that this is the most impressive individual accomplishment in all of team sports.

Phil Humber and Pitching Perfection

I don't think back on my baseball days with a ton of pride.  I was a decent ballplayer, but my diminutive size always put me at a bit of a disadvantage.  I dabbled in pitching, and I had to make up for my lack of velocity with pinpoint control.  I also didn't have an arsenal of off-speed pitches to turn to, so it was all about painting the black for me.

One sunny afternoon in eighth grade, I took my turn in the rotation in a modified baseball game.  I was feeling pretty good that day, hitting all the corners, and my little dinky curveball actually had a little more spin than usual.  Before I knew it, I was through the first three innings without allowing a baserunner.  My teammates knew the drill.  They left me quarantined on the end of the dugout while I sat and mulled over what it was I was actually doing.  The fourth inning went smoothly.  I was just three innings away from perfection.  I retired the first batter in the fifth inning.  Then, a simple walk to the next hitter thwarted my dreams of a perfect game.    

It seemed like I had everything going for me that day, but just one tiny slip up and it became just another game.  It just wasn't meant to be.  Plus, the umpire totally squeezed me on that ball four call.

The baseball gods were good to Philip Humber last Saturday.  On that day, Humber retired all 27 Seattle Mariners he faced to pitch the 21st perfect game in MLB history.  The last pitcher to throw a perfect game was Roy Halladay in late May of 2010, and it seems unlikely that the chain would continue with a pitcher like Humber.  He isn't someone you would expect to throw a perfect game, but that's part of what makes perfect games unlike any accomplishment in sports.

Humber entered the season as Chicago's fourth starter, just ahead of converted reliever Chris Sale.  He had bounced around from the Mets to the Twins and Royals, finally landing with the White Sox.  Before Saturday's game, Humber had made all of 29 starts in just over five major league seasons with 26 of them coming last year.  He began to make good on the potential that made him the third overall selection by the Mets in the 2004 draft last year by going 9-9 in 26 starts with a 3.75 ERA.  But as a fourth starter, expectations are rightfully tampered.

That didn't stop Humber from pitching the game of his life.  He needed just two hours and 17 minutes and 96 pitches to finish off a relatively weak Seattle Mariners lineup.  His slider was devastating.  His fastball had life and was located extremely well.  He used those two pitches to strike out nine Mariners and keep the hitters on their heels all game long.  Even though the swinging strike called on Brendan Ryan was highly questionable* (it sure looked like he checked his swing), that doesn't take away from the rest of the brilliant pitching that went into his perfect game.

*It's funny to think that in the last two serious bids for perfect games, the umpires played the deciding roles.  Home plate umpire Brian Runge was generous with his swing call for Humber, but Armando Galarraga was the victim of a blown call at first on what would have been the final out of his perfect game by umpire Jim Joyce.

In what other team sport is there an accomplishment like the perfect game?  In most team sports, your best players start most of your games.  In baseball, the back end of starting rotations are usually question marks.  Unless you are blessed with a deep staff, you don't put the most faith in your fourth and fifth starters.  Still, they are entrusted with the ball and get the opportunity to start every fifth day.  That doesn't happen in other team sports unless the star players are injured.  I can't even think of an appropriate comparison in another sport because there really isn't one.  

Pitchers are involved in every single play while they are on the field.  Whether it be a pitch, a pickoff attempt, a pitch-out, or an intentional walk, they have a hand in everything that goes on.  The defense behind them obviously plays an important role in any perfect game because the pitcher can't strike out all 27 batters, but the pitcher still has to make the pitches to induce those outs.  That doesn't happen in other team sports.  You could make the case that quarterbacks are involved every play when you count handoffs, and that's true.  But in my mind, making a pitch is more difficult than completing a handoff.

And when a pitcher finds himself in a groove like this, there really is no way to counter it.  Hitters can try and make adjustments, but if the pitcher can keep them guessing, he always has the advantage.  In basketball you can mix up defenses to try and throw off a hot scorer or bring double teams.  In football you can stack the line against a good running back or blitz a quarterback to get him out of his rhythm.  You can be extra physical with a good goal scorer in hockey.  But if a pitcher is going well, the only person that can beat him is himself.

Plus, when a pitcher is going like that, it almost guarantees his team a victory.  I say almost because there have been a few "perfect games" that didn't result in wins for their teams or the pitchers.  Pedro Martinez took a perfect game into the 10th inning for the Montreal Expos on June 3, 1995.   After his team finally got him the lead in the top frame of extra innings, he gave up a hit to the first batter he faced, Bip Roberts, to lose his perfection.  He still got the win, but his nine perfect innings don't meet MLB criteria for a "perfect game".  

Even worse than Martinez, Harvey Haddox took his perfect game into the 13th inning as his Pittsburgh Pirates battled the Milwaukee Braves.  The Pirates knocked around 12 hits over the course of the game, but couldn't score any runs.  In the 13th, a hit, a walk, and an error led to the only run of the game and a win for the Braves.  You can even look to this year and the classic duel between Cliff Lee and Matt Cain.  Lee went 10 scoreless innings and Cain went nine, but both ended up with no-decisions.  Usually, when a pitcher is on his game like that, his team is guaranteed a win.

And that's what makes perfect games so special and unique to me.  Baseball is the oldest team sport around, yet there have been just 21 perfect games thrown.  When you look at the list of players to throw them, some of the greatest pitchers in history show up.  Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Catfish Hunter, Addie Joss, and Roy Halladay all grace the list.  Other great pitchers like Jim Bunning, Dennis Martinez, David Cone, and David Wells, have their names etched in history.

But some pretty unassuming players have thrown perfect games.  Humber had won just 11 games before his masterpiece last weekend.  Dallas Braden, who threw one for the Oakland A's just weeks before Halladay, is 26-36 for his career with a 4.16 ERA.  Charlie Robertson, who went 49-80 over his eight-year career, threw one in 1922.  And Don Larsen, who threw arguably the greatest of all the perfect games in the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, finished his career at just 81-91 with an ERA of 3.78.  Not all of the men on this list were the best pitchers on their teams.  They were just great on that day when they were given the ball, just like Humber was on Saturday.  

Every pitcher chases it and dreams of it, but so few have actually achieved it.  That's what makes this accomplishment so amazing to me.  Some of the best pitchers in baseball have never been able to accomplish it, yet pitchers can come out of nowhere like Braden and unfurl a gem.  I'll always remember one of Mike Mussina's many bids for perfection.  He was one strike away against Boston pinch-hitter Carl Everett, and left his next pitch up in the zone, where Everett smacked it for a single.  One mistake, and it was gone.  

It doesn't matter if he is an ace or a spot starter. Unless the pitcher has it against all 27 batters, he can't come out perfect.  And that's exactly what Phil Humber was against the Mariners.   

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