Imagine if he’d had his best stuff.
As he moved inning by inning toward baseball immortality Saturday, humble Philip Humber couldn’t quite see it.
“I didn’t have great stuff until the sixth or seventh inning,” he said. “Then the ball started coming out of my hand better.”
The 29-year-old journeyman from Nacogdoches, TX., playing for his fifth organization in seven years and possessed of an 11-10 career record (4.06 ERA), was the epitome of baseball greatness for nine innings at Safeco Field.
True, he was up against the Seattle Mariners, who have been the most feeble offense in MLB two years running and looking for the hat trick so far in April. But in baseball, so many things conspire against one of sports’ most difficult feats.
Bad calls. Bad hops. Bunts. Bloops. Batters hit and get hit. Fielders collide. Too cold. Too hot. Too tired.
None of those things happened, especially including any offensive glimmer by the Mariners. So Humber, who had been the next-to-last player in MLB to get into a game this season (the Mariners’ Hisashi Iwakuma was the final one to play Friday), also entered baseball Valhalla, becoming the 21st pitcher, going back to 1880, to throw a perfect game. Oh, and his Chicago White Sox won, 4-0 — the first perfecto against the Mariners in their 35-year history.
“I don’t know what Philip Humber is doing on this list,” he said of perfect-game pitchers. “I have no idea.”
Clueless as well were the Mariners, who watched Humber masterfully mix a 94-mph fastball with a wicked slider, curve and occasional change-up.
“We got nothing going — he kept us off-balance all day,” said Mariners manager Eric Wedge, who seemed a little stunned at the bats he had been touting as coming, going the other way. “He did a great job. You have make him work harder than we did today. We mishit so many balls.
“He stayed ahead of us the whole time. He did a great job staying on the plate.”
So much so he needed only 96 pitches, including just 20 in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, and picked up a career-high nine strikeouts. The only time he was troubled was the ninth, when the pressure of perfection forced him into 16 pitches as 22,742 stood and cheered, preferring history over the humiliation of the hometown lads.
If there were luck and controversy, which tend to accompany perfectos, both came in the final inning, and final pitch.
Against Michael Saunders leading off the ninth, Humber reached the first three-ball count in his game. But Saunders turned the 3-0 count into strike three, swinging. Pinch-hitter John Jaso flew out weakly to right field for the second out. For the last chance at break-up, Wedge went with another pinch-hitter, veteran shortstop Brendan Ryan, instead of Munenori Kawasaki.
Ryan reached 3-2, then fouled back the only fastball of his at-bat.
“I’d really like that pitch back,” he said afterward. Instead, he got a far worse one. Humber threw a slider in the dirt, ball four, so wide that catcher A.J. Pierzynski couldn’t come up with what would have been scored a wild pitch — if Ryan hadn’t offered a bit of a swing.
Home plate umpire Brian Runge, apparently not wanting to be part of ruining a perfect game, called strike three.
Ryan blew up at Runge. But Pierzynski sprinted to the ball 30 feet away and fired to first to record the strikeout before Ryan made it 20 feet down the line.
Afterward, Ryan refused to talk about what appeared to be a poor call on a swing Ryan checked. He’s been around baseball long enough to know that anything he said would have been viewed as sour grapes.
“I really dont want to talk about it,” he said. “I will say it was an outstanding game by Humber. He was bringing A-plus stuff . . . pretty authentic today.
“I was so fired up for the chance to wreck it. My heart was probably pounding harder than his was.”
Moments after the final out, the only pounding was being done by teammates on Humber, who dropped to his knees between the mound and first, then did a face plant in the Safeco grass.
Of the last pitch, he said, “I yelled at A.J., ‘Go get it — throw him out!'” I saw the ump ring (Ryan) up. At the moment, there was a ton of emotions. I have so many thanks for where I’m at.”
A first-round draft choice out of Rice University by the New York Mets in 2004 (third overall), Humber is not exactly unknown. But until 2011 his career floundered, including Tommy John elbow surgery in 2006. Last year, he had a breakout, forcing the Sox to use a six-man rotation. He had a career-high 163 innings and limited opponents to a .243 batting average.
But this season, because of a rainout causing him to be skipped in the rotation, he was the second-to-last player on an Opening Day MLB roster to get into action, ahead only of Iwakuma.
The limited action was no hindrance Saturday.
“Once you get past the fifth inning, you know what’s going on,” he said. “It’s a slim chance it’s gonna happen. But by the ninth, you’re standing there with chance to throw a perfect game.
“I really want to thank A.J., especially on that first (Saunders strikeout) in the ninth. He was able to get back me in there. He knew what to call today, and kept them off balance.
“I was rushing a little bit in the beginning, and I was able to slow myself down a little bit.”
Instead, it was the Mariners who began rushing, seemingly more aggressive with each at-bat. Only Dustin Ackley’s liner to right field in the fourth inning had a chance to be a hit, but it was hauled in by Alex Rios.
Losers of three in a row and four of their last five, the Mariners get a chance to wipe off the nine-inning omelette starting at 1 p.m. Sunday. Ryan said he hopes he and his teammates come out mad.
Couldn’t hurt. Seeing how the fans were cheering the foe Saturday, they seemed to have exhausted the word sad.
Modern-Era Perfect Games
|May 5, 1904||Cy Young||Americans||Athletics||NA||8|
|Oct. 2, 1908||Addie Joss||Indians||White Sox||74||3|
|April 30, 1922||Charlie Robertson||White Sox||Tigers||90||6|
|Oct. 8, 1956||Don Larsen||Yankees||Dodgers||97||7|
|June 21, 1964||Jim Bunning||Phillies||Mets||90||10|
|Sept. 9, 1965||Sandy Koufax||Dodgers||Cubs||113||14|
|May 8, 1968||Catfish hunter||Athletics||Twins||107||11|
|May 15, 1981||Len Barker||Indians||Blue Jays||103||11|
|Sept. 30, 1984||Mike Witt||Angels||Rangers||94||10|
|Sept. 16, 1988||Tom Browning||Reds||Dodgers||100||7|
|July 28, 1991||Dennis Martinez||Expos||Dodgers||95||5|
|July 28, 1994||Kenny Rogers||Rangers||Angels||98||8|
|May 17, 1998||David Wells||Yankees||Twins||120||11|
|July 18, 1999||David Cone||Yankees||Expos||88||10|
|May 18, 2004||Randy Johnson||D-Backs||Braves||117||13|
|July 23, 2009||Mark Buehrle||White Sox||Rays||116||6|
|May 9, 2010||Dallas Braden||Athletics||Rays||109||6|
|May 29, 2010||Roy Halladay||Phillies||Marlins||115||11|
|April 21, 2012||Philip Humber||White Sox||Mariners||96||9|