Written by Marc Valeri (www.voiceofvaleri.com)
After a career marred by injuries and disappointment, White Sox' RHP Phil Humber achieved what only a handful of people have ever accomplished in their careers.
In just his 30th Major League start, Humber threw the 21st perfect game in MLB history in a 4-0 win over the Mariners (the 19th of the modern era), and the first one since Phillies' RHP Roy Halladay did it in may 2010. The 29-year-old got nine strikeouts, five groundouts and 13 fly ball outs, totalling just 96 pitches to get through the M's lineup–only David Cone's perfect game in 1999 was more efficient. It was also the third perfect game White Sox's history, joining Mark Buehrle's game against the Rays on July 23, 2009, and Charles Robertson's gem against the Tigers on April 30, 1922.
Midway through the game, though, it became clear Humber was destined for something special. To work the fourth through the sixth, he needed just 20 pitches to retire nine batters. Humber said after the game,
"I don't even know what to say. I don't know what Philip Humber is doing in this list. No idea what my name is doing there, but I'm thankful it's there."
"This is awesome. I'm so thankful."
Humber's gem, of course, came with it's own controversy.
In the ninth inning, Humber struck out Michael Saunders on a 3-and-2 slider (working his way back from 3-and-0, I might add), then got pinch-hitter John Jaso to fly to short right field. Finally, he struck out pinch-hitter Brendan Ryan on a check-swing full-count slider that was in the dirt and got away from C A.J. Pierzynski. On the replay, it appeared as though Ryan had in fact not gone around, and that the call should have been ball four.
Ryan immediately began arguing with umpire Brian Runge that he didn't go around as the ball rolled to the backstop. Ryan took a few steps towards first, but turned around and continued arguing instead, as Pierzynski threw the final out to first base. Ryan, who runs well, likely could have beat out the throw to cancel the perfect game–or at least made it close–had he ran to first base as soon as he noticed the ball was not caught. Instead, Ryan is now the unflattering answer to a trivia question. After the game, Ryan commented on the final pitch:
"Everyone wants to talk about the checked swing, huh?"
"The closer they get, the more borderline things may go (the pitcher's way)," Ryan said. "Because that's just the way things go. I just wanted to be more aggressive."
When asked if that was ball four, Ryan said,
"It was, it was."
Pierzynski told reports after the game what was on his mind after the dropped third strike:
"Get the ball and get it to first as fast as possible, because if I screw this up, I'm going to be a goat forever."
"I was more nervous than I was in the World Series. There was no build up for this, it just happened. And you want it so bad for the guy on the mound and you want him to have that achievement forever and you want to have him remembered forever. It's a special thing that Phil did."
As Pierzynski threw to first, Humber half-collapsed, half-threw himself to the grass, realizing he had accomplished every young boy's dream. He was immediately rushed and piled on by his teammates in celebration.
But it hasn't been all smooth sailing for Humber like it was on Saturday afternoon–he was once a highly-touted prospect deemed a bust; one that would never pan out.
Humber was selected third overall in the 2004 Draft by the Mets, just one pick behind Tigers' ace RHP Justin Verlander. He was a projected future ace, a top-of-the-rotation pitcher a team could build their staff around. But he had a major curveball thrown his way before his career had even started–a year after being drafted, Humber was forced to undergo a Tommy John surgery, a significant elbow surgery that generally requires over a year of rehabilitation, and is often the kiss of death for young pitchers.
But that wouldn't hold him back. Humber continued his baseball career and made his way up the Mets' organization before making his MLB debut on September 24, 2006. He made two appearances from the Mets’ bullpen that season. The following year, he remained in the minors for most of the season before being called up in September. After two relief appearances for the Mets, he started his first major league game on September 26, 2007.
In 2008, Humber headlined a four-prospect package that was traded to the Twins for ace LHP Johan Santana in February 2008. Not much changed in Minnesota–they never let him start a single game in the majors after making 48 starts over two years at Triple-A. Humber spent the majority of 2008 with the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., and made just five relief appearances for the Twins in September. Humber began the 2009 season in the majors, but was sent back to Triple-A after allowing 11 hits and six runs in four relief appearances in April. He was called up again in August and pitched four more times in relief. Eventually, he was designated for assignment, and signed a minor-league deal with the Royals in December 2009.
His luck worsened from there. On June 10, 2010, Humber was smoked in the face by a freak line drive comebacker while pitching for Omaha. Thankfully, he was able to get up and leave the game under his own power. Humber enjoyed his first career Major League win with KC, but his Royals career would be short-lived as well; just eight starts. In December of the same year, he was waived by the Royals and claimed by the Athletics. Shortly after, he was waived in order to sign RHP Grant Balfour. A month later, Humber was claimed by the White Sox. Humber's Triple-A numbers weren't impressive. Across four years among organizations, he posted a 4.67 ERA, but always showed good control, averaging 6.9 strikeouts and 2.7 walks per nine innings.
In 29 previous career starts since 2007, Humber had never thrown a complete game, let alone a shutout. His career record was 11-10, 9-9 as a starter with a 3.75 ERA in 163 innings last season, his first full season in the majors as a starter.
"My identity was as a baseball player. How I evaluated myself was my stat line. If my stat line was great I felt good about myself. If it wasn't then I didn't feel so good. It took me a long time to figure it isn't about me, or us. Whatever we do, we should be doing to glorify God. I'm not saying I'll always be successful for that attitude or always have a good game, but I will be a more joyful person."
Much credit for Humber's game can be attributed to his new-and-improved slider, which has helped him stay in the majors. He threw 32 sliders against the Mariners, including 15 that ended at-bats with an out. Six of his nine strikeouts were on the slider, including both in the ninth inning. He induced batters to chase eight of 17 sliders outside the zone and miss on seven of 19 swings overall. After throwing his slider on 5 of 37 pitches (14%) the first time through the order, he threw 27 on 59 pitches (46%) the rest of the game.
It was a fitting achievement for a player who's endured so many hardships and obstacles over his career. From potentially career-ending elbow surgery, to being passed around on waivers like a hot potato, to being laced in the face with a line drive, Humber has certainly paid his dues. His naysayers will point out that Humber faced a weak Mariners lineup at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. But how many pitchers have done that and not had the same result? Ultimately, Humber joins elite company, including Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Catfish Hunter and Halladay to have ever thrown perfection.
The moral of this story, at least to the Mets, is to never count anyone out, something they seem to have a history of doing. Humber joins Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and Cone as one-time Mets to have thrown a perfect game elsewhere. New York has never had a no-hitter in its 51-year history.
Humber will soon be celebrating another milestone achievement, but this one will come off the field. Humber said following the game that his first phone call was to his wife, Kristan, who is nine months' pregnant with a baby boy due May 8, hoping she didn't go into labor from over-excitement.
"I mean, I can't even put it into words. I'm just so happy. There are so many good things happening right now."