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The Humbler's Perfecto

Philip Humber ruined everything.

Just when I sat down to write in glowing terms how the Sox have managed to virtually stop their opponents from ever stealing a base, the guy has to go out and pitch a perfect game. That's tough to ignore.

And it was very cool. Anyone watching this drama play out on Saturday afternoon before a national TV audience and 22,000 at Safeco Field had to experience a few heart palpitations and shallow breathing. Even A.J. Pierzynski, the consummate pro, admitted to being nervous as he took his position behind the plate for the ninth inning.

Humber's only three-ball counts jacked up the suspense since both occurred in the bottom of the ninth. He went 3-0 on Michael Saunders before striking him out on three straight pitches for the first out, and then the now-famous 3-2 count on Brendan Ryan before umpire Brian Runge called him out as the ball squirted under Pierzynski's mitt.

Had Ryan immediately sprinted toward first base, the play might have been close. But luck has a way of interjecting itself in these kinds of events, so Ryan opted to argue the call rather than run to first. A.J. - what was going through his mind as he cocked his arm? - threw a perfect strike to Paulie, and bedlam reigned. The only mystery remaining was whether Jake Peavy would emerge injury-free after tackling Humber as the celebration began.

The Mariners were not exactly unwilling participants. Humber's control was magnificent all day as he threw 67 strikes out of 96 pitches. You might have thought that the Seattle boys would have taken a few more pitches to make Humber work longer and harder. However, from the fifth inning on, six of their guys swung at the first pitch. Apparently they figured that Humber's initial offering was the most hittable since Phil got ahead in the count all afternoon.

In his post-game interview, Seattle manager Eric Wedge hinted that his guys might have been more patient, but he said "we have a young ball club" as an explanation for swinging early and often.

Humber, whose new nickname should be the Humbler since he credited just about everyone other than himself, joins a rather eclectic group of 20 other pitchers who have pitched perfectos. Six are in the Hall of Fame (John Montgomery Ward, Cy Young, Addie Joss, Catfish Hunter, Sandy Koufax, and Jim Bunning) and two more figure to enter in the future (Randy Johnson and Roy Halladay). Our beloved Mark Buehrle, should he string together another four or five solid years, might also get HOF consideration.

Then there were guys like Dennis Martinez (23 years in the bigs with 245 wins), David Wells (21 years and 239 wins), Kenny Rogers (20 years and 219 wins), and David Cone (17 years, 194 wins), who all pitched perfect games and were among the elite pitchers of their day.

The next tier includes Len Barker, Mike Witt and Tom Browning - dependable, if not outstanding, pitchers in the 1980s.

A few authors of perfect games had less than stellar careers. The most famous masterpiece was turned in by the Yankees' Don Larsen because it was the only perfect game in post-season play. (Roy Halladay did pitch a no-hitter in the playoffs in 2010, but not a perfect game.) Larsen retired all 27 Dodgers in the fifth game of the 1956 World Series. This was a guy who never won more than 11 games in a season and posted a 3-21 record for the Orioles in their inaugural campaign in Baltimore in 1954.

Aside from making World Series history, the feat accounted for one of baseball's all-time memorable photographs as catcher Yogi Berra jumped into Larsen's arms after pinch hitter Dale Mitchell was called out on strikes to end the game.

The other lackluster pitcher in this exclusive group would be the Sox's very own Charlie Robertson, who blanked the Tigers 2-0 in Detroit on April 30, 1922. Charlie toiled for eight seasons in the American League, compiling a 49-80 record. In his defense, Robertson never played for a team that finished higher than fifth place. I also should mention a little known fact - after exiting World War I, Robertson pitched one inning for the 1919 Black Sox.

Not so long ago on May 9, 2010, the A's Dallas Braden recorded a perfect game against Tampa Bay. A year later, Braden - an emerging star of Oakland's staff - had shoulder surgery. He has resumed throwing but remains inactive.

Perhaps the most intriguing member of this clan of perfection would be J. Lee Richmond. He also pitched in the '80s - the 1880s. Ol' Lee totally subdued the Cleveland Blues 1-0 on June 12, 1880, while pitching for the Worcester (Massachusetts) Ruby Legs of the National League.

The record books make a distinction between the "modern era," beginning in 1901 with the founding of the American League, versus everything that happened between 1876 and 1900. If you look at the record of Mr. Richmond, the numbers jump off the page. Richmond's perfect game was just one of his 32 victories in 1880. Look again and you'll discover that he also lost 32. The left-hander started 66 games that season and pitched 590 innings! That's three seasons' worth for today's "workhorses."

You might figure that Richmond had ample opportunity to string together nine perfect innings. The odds may have been in his favor. In those days teams had maybe two starting pitchers, and rotator cuffs hadn't been invented.

Perfect games are anything but common. Thirty-four years elapsed between Robertson and Larsen, though Humber is the fourth since 2009, following Buehrle, Braden and Halladay.

Finally, no discussion of perfect games should be complete without mentioning Harvey Haddix, who pitched the greatest game ever in May 1959. The Pirate left-hander, among the league's better pitchers, not only recorded nine perfect innings against the Braves on a cool, misty night in Milwaukee, but since his uncooperative teammates couldn't score, Haddix continued on to get all 36 hitters through 12 innings. The string ran out in the 13th, and Harvey got an "L" for his efforts, losing 1-0. This game remains in a category of its own.

Now that Philip Humber has achieved baseball - should I say it? - immortality, watching the direction of his career will be interesting. He had a bit of luck - Humber might call it divine intervention - but far more importantly, the bottom was dropping out of his breaking ball, his fastball was alive, his control was spot-on, and he appeared unflappable. Nice combination, which if it continues will reap big rewards for Humber and the White Sox.

We'll see.

In the meantime, about all those would-be base stealers the Sox are throwing out . . . that will have to wait.

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Philip Humber: The Unlikely Journey of the Journeyman's Journeyman

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Posted on Jul 24, 2017

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