Unlikely stroll with immortals

JOHN MCGRATH; THE NEWS TRIBUNEApril 22, 2012 

When the moment finally sank in for Philip Humber, and he realized he had become the 21st major leaguer to throw a perfect game, his first thought was that his name didn’t belong with the likes of Cy Young and Sandy Koufax.

“I don’t know what Philip Humber is doing on that list,” the Chicago White Sox pitcher said Saturday afternoon at Safeco Field, where he managed another kind of rare baseball milestone: humiliating the home team while earning a sustained ovation from the home team’s fans.

Before the right-hander retired 27 out of 27 batters, before he used a slider-and-fastball combination to carve up the Mariners with a domination approaching ease – it wasn’t until the ninth inning before he faced a count with a ball three – many of the fans who applauded Humber never had heard of him. (Or how to pronounce the name: The H is silent.)

A 29-year-old Texan who starred at Rice University, Humber had won all of 11 games during a vagabond big league career that began in 2006. He never had pitched a shutout in the majors. He never had completed a game.

And yet, on an afternoon military service members were saluted at Safeco Field, Humber pitched himself into the pantheon of the few and the proud. Among the first messages he received was from the Hall of Fame, which asked Humber for a souvenir from his 12th career victory.

“The Hall of Fame wants my cap,” he said. “I’ve been to the Hall of Fame. To think something of mine will be in there is pretty awesome.”

The No. 3 overall pick in 2004 wasn’t selling himself short. He knew his stuff was good enough to overwhelm a lineup whose best chance at a hit was a fourth-inning Dustin Ackley line drive chased down by right fielder Alex Rios.

He also knew that he wasn’t to be confused with former Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, who threw a perfect game in 2010, or with future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, who threw a perfect game in 2004.

But the kind of baseball history made in a single day can be beautifully arbitrary. It can appoint the best and the brightest names for posterity, and it can appoint guys looking to complete their first game.

The largely forgotten Len Barker (flawed for most of his career, but perfect one night with the 1984 Cleveland Indians) is a member of the 21 Club. Dallas Braden (an obscurity before and after his 2010 perfect game with the Oakland A’s) is a member of the 21 Club. Mike Witt and Charlie Robertson and Tom Browning are members of the 21 Club.

That Philip Humber is the newest member of the 21 Club can be traced to his ability to conserve energy. After five innings, he had thrown just 51 pitches. After eight innings, he’d thrown 81.

With the White Sox leading 4-0 going into the bottom of the ninth, the suspense wasn’t whether Humber would be the winning pitcher, or even a no-hit pitcher. The suspense was whether he’d be a perfect pitcher.

When he missed on a pair of fastballs against the first batter in the ninth, Michael Saunders, the crowd woke up. And when Saunders worked the count to 3-0, the crowd stirred.

What was Humber thinking?

“I was thinking,” he said, “throw a strike.”

Three pitches later, Saunders struck out swinging. One down.

Pinch-hitter John Jaso, batting for Miguel Olivo, took a pair of breaking pitches and quickly found himself in an 0-2 hole. Jaso then popped up to Rios in right. Two down.

And so Humber’s improbable dalliance with history would be determined by another pinch hitter, Brendan Ryan. Fans were on their feet now, rooting for an opponent whose name they didn’t know how to pronounce.

Ryan, seemingly relishing his role as the nuisance whose challenge was to sully perfection, extended Humber to a full count before fouling off a fastball.

Humber’s 96th and final pitch was a slider wide of the strike zone.

Ryan offered part of a swing but changed his mind.

He figured: Ball four.

Home-plate umpire Brian Runge ruled: Strike three.

As Ryan turned to argue with Runge, the ball skipped past catcher A.J. Pierzynski. No matter. Pierzynski still had plenty of time to throw the batter out at first.

Ryan slammed his helmet to the ground – and appeared on the verge of slamming Runge to the ground – when manager Eric Wedge intervened.

A borderline call on the unchecked swing for three? Yes. But borderline 3-2 calls, when perfect games are on the line with two out in the ninth inning, ought to favor the pitcher.

Humber was mobbed. About 45 minutes later, he still was wearing his gray visitors’ uniform, posing on the pitchers mound for a snapshot with the Mariners’ grounds crew.

As he made his trek off the field to the clubhouse, a photographer summoned him for one last pose. Standing in the shade behind third base, Humber was asked to back up a few paces.

There, the photographer signaled. Stop there.

The 12-game winner who forever will be associated with Cy Young and Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson now was standing where he belonged.

In the sun.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

PERFECT GAMES

Perfect games thrown in major league baseball history:

Philip Humber, Chicago (AL) at Seattle, 4-0, April 21, 2012

Roy Halladay, Philadelphia at Florida, 1-0, May 29, 2010

Dallas Braden, Oakland vs. Tampa Bay, 4-0, May 9, 2010

Mark Buehrle, Chicago (AL) vs. Tampa Bay, 5-0, July 23, 2009

Randy Johnson, Arizona at Atlanta, 2-0, May 18, 2004

David Cone, New York (AL) vs. Montreal, 6-0, July 18, 1999

David Wells, New York (AL) vs. Minnesota, 4-0, May 17, 1998

Kenny Rogers, Texas vs. California, 4-0, July 28, 1994

Dennis Martinez, Montreal at Los Angeles, 2-0, July 28, 1991

Tom Browning, Cincinnati vs. Los Angeles, 1-0, Sept. 16, 1988

Mike Witt, California at Texas, 1-0, Sept. 30, 1984

Len Barker, Cleveland vs. Toronto, 3-0, May 15, 1981

Catfish Hunter, Oakland vs. Minnesota, 4-0, May 8, 1968

Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles vs. Chicago (NL), 1-0, Sept. 9, 1965

Jim Bunning, Philadelphia at New York (NL), 6-0, June 21, 1964

Don Larsen, New York (AL) vs. Brooklyn, 2-0, Oct. 8, 1956-x

Charles Robertson, Chicago (AL) at Detroit, 2-0, April 30, 1922

Addie Joss, Cleveland vs. Chicago (AL), 1-0, Oct. 2, 1908

Cy Young, Boston vs. Philadelphia (AL), 3-0, May 5, 1904

x-World Series

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