Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 22, 2012

From Sublime Perfection To Perfect Craziness

Of the Great Game’s many appeals, one of the greatest is the nearly limitless range of possible outcomes of each contest. While over the course of the longest season there are many games that end in identical scores, those same results are reached in any number of different ways. When fans make their way into ballparks or turn on their flat screens at home, there is no telling whether they are about to witness a 1-0 duel between two equally matched pitchers, or a wild slugfest in which both teams’ batters rule; a one-sided rout or a thrilling walk-off win. Seldom has that enormous range of potential result been more clearly displayed than on Saturday, in two games played on opposite coasts. While most fans must be content with just reading about the wildly divergent contests, those who happened to be tuned into the Fox network got to see vital portions of both.

Out in Seattle the Mariners were hosting the Chicago White Sox. Seattle came into the contest a game below .500, while Chicago was a game above two-plus weeks into the new season. Both teams face daunting tasks over the long run. Chicago is likely to spend much of the year looking up at Detroit in the AL Central, as the Tigers have the slugging pair of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder to back up a good young starting rotation led by Cy Young and MVP Award winner Justin Verlander. Seattle may be even more unlucky, as they play in the AL West, home to both two-time AL Champion Texas and the Los Angeles Angels, who stocked up during the off-season on pitcher C. J. Wilson and slugger Albert Pujols.

But on Saturday the two squads were concerned only about each other, as White Sox pitcher Philip Humber took the mound in the bottom of the 1st after his teammates had gone down in order in the top half of the inning. Humber returned the favor, getting Chone Figgins and Dustin Ackley to ground out and retiring Ichiro on a liner to shortstop. Then Humber set the Mariners down in order again in the 2nd and 3rd, even as his offense got on the board with one run in the 2nd on a Paul Konerko homer and two more in the 3rd on four singles. With one out in the bottom of the 4th Ackley hit a sharp liner to right, but Alex Rios raced back near the warning track and reached up to snare the ball for the second out.

So it went inning after inning, Seattle sending three batters to the plate and Humber retiring each of them. Through eight frames the 29-year old Humber needed just 80 pitches to retire the minimum twenty-four batters. He came out in the bottom of the 9th with a 4-0 lead, three outs from history. Humber threw three straight balls to Michael Saunders, his first three-ball count of the game. But he came back with three straight strikes for the twenty-fifth consecutive out. Then on a 0-2 count pinch hitter John Jason flied out to right. Finally pinch hitter Brendan Ryan stepped in, and worked the count full. Ryan fouled off Humber’s 95th pitch of the game. Humber’s 96th was a slider, low and out of the strike zone. But Ryan had committed to the pitch, and though he tried to check his swing home plate umpire Brian Runge signaled “strike three.” The ball in the dirt was blocked by catcher A. J. Pierzynski, who quickly picked it up and threw to first for the final out of the 21st perfect game in major league history.

There are five Hall of Famers among the twenty other hurlers who have tossed a perfect game and two more who will certainly be there one day, Randy Johnson and Roy Halladay. But the list also includes many names who, like Philip Humber, had little on their career resume to suggest that they were due for sudden fame. The Mets made Humber the third overall choice in the 2004 draft; but he lost a year to rehab from Tommy John surgery and has spent more time in the minors than the majors over seven years of drifting from the Mets to the Twins to the Royals, and now finally to the White Sox. When he took the mound on Saturday it was just his 56th big-league appearance and his 30th start. His major league career record was 11-10 when he threw his 1st pitch. After his 96th that record became 12-10, and the 12th victory is one that will live forever.

About 3,200 miles east of Seattle, the Yankees and Red Sox were playing a nationally televised game at Fenway Park. One day earlier Boston had celebrated the old ball yard’s 100th birthday with a fine ceremony filled with music, flyovers, and the introduction of 212 Sox alumni. With both teams in throwback uniforms the Yankees had then dampened the celebration by hitting five solo home runs in a 6-2 victory. So it was perfectly understandable that the Red Sox and their fans were hungry to get even. They wasted little time jumping on Freddy Garcia, whose third straight poor outing and 9.75 ERA have to be major concerns to Yankees fans. Boston scored twice in the 1st on three doubles, and added three more runs in the 2nd, chasing Garcia before the inning was done. They added two more runs in the 3rd and another pair in the 5th to stretch the lead to 9-0. When Mark Teixeira homered to left in the top of the 6th to put New York on the board, it hardly seemed to matter. Teixeira’s blast was just the fourth hit off of Red Sox starter Felix Doubront. But Doubront’s pitch count was up to 99 by the end of the 6th; and with the game seemingly well in hand Boston manager Bobby Valentine turned to his bullpen.

The folks at Fox Sports must have been thinking like Valentine, because the game in Seattle was the one contest they were broadcasting regionally, as a backup to the matchup at Fenway. With Humber’s quest for perfection nearing its climax, they switched national coverage over to that contest. While that decision may have upset some fans of the two Eastern Division rivals, under the circumstances it was absolutely the right call. History was being made in Seattle, and nothing historic was happening in Boston.

At least not until the Yankees sent eleven men to the plate in the 7th and twelve in the 8th, scoring a touchdown worth of runs in each frame to turn a 9-1 deficit into a 15-9 lead. The comeback, sparked by a Nick Swisher grand slam followed by a three-run shot by Teixeira in the 7th, was well under way by the time Humber recorded the final out and Fox switched their national coverage back to Boston. It continued with Swisher, Teixeira, and catcher Russell Martin each doubling home a pair of runs in the 8th before Derek Jeter capped the scoring with an RBI infield single. In the end the Yankees tied the franchise record for the largest deficit overcome in a victory. With six RBI’s apiece, Swisher and Teixeira became the fifth pair of Yankees to have at least that many RBI’s in a single game, and the first duo to accomplish the feat in seven seasons.

In Seattle the Mariners sent just 27 men to the plate, and Philip Humber retired them all with 96 pitches. In Boston 50 Yankees and 44 Red Sox batters stepped in to face a total of 13 different pitchers. Six Yankees hurlers threw a total of 164 pitches; Doubront and six relievers offered up 189. It was the same game on both coasts. One was perfect; the other was perfectly surreal.

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