PHOENIX – It was the first inning, and Brandon Webb, the man so cool he spends the minutes leading up to his starts strumming aimlessly on a Fender, couldn't stop the pearls of sweat from racing one another down the side of his face.
The thermometer tickled 109 here Wednesday, one of those days when not even the mercury could stand it, and the roof at Chase Field closed a little later than usual, which made the place 10 towel-clad men short of a good shvitz. Seeing as Webb entered his Arizona Diamondbacks' game against the Milwaukee Brewers with 42 consecutive scoreless innings, this seemed an inconvenience and little more. Nothing – not even a little heat – could stop Webb and his burrowing sinker.
Of course, to expect such a performance from Webb – such perfection, really – was folly. Because he is the reigning National League Cy Young winner, and because his pitches look even better this year than last, the notion that he could break Orel Hershiser's record of 59 straight scoreless was romantic in the baseball sense, something onto which anyone could grab – and did – no matter its unlikelihood.
"There's so many easy ways for a run to get on the board," Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin said, and on this night, one of them did. The first inning went as such: single, stolen base, advance to third on groundout, RBI single.
Fifteen pitches severed 42 innings of brilliance, the fifth-longest streak since 1940. And as the crowd of 31,720, rather puny for the occasion, stood to give Webb his deserved ovation, he craned his neck toward his jersey and stopped the battle of perspiration with a wipe of his shirtsleeve before doffing his cap.
"When it happened in the first inning," Webb said, "I was pretty relieved."
The pressure hadn't gotten to him. Just reality. As Webb's teammates had sprinted onto the field 10 minutes earlier, he sauntered out like a just-awake man walking to get his newspaper. Thirty-two steps, including one right on the third-base line – a big ol' one-finger Kentucky salute to Lady Luck – before he bent over and picked up the baseball.
All afternoon, talk around the stadium centered on Webb and the streak. In a corner of the Brewers' clubhouse, Webb's opponent on the night, Jeff Suppan, gripped a bat and bent over in the stance of Quasimodo were he a lefty. Prince Fielder, the National League leader in home runs who was 5 for 7 off Webb entering the game, nodded his head feverishly, the aftereffect of two sugar-free Red Bull cans he pounded in the previous 15 minutes.
"I might do that on the sinker," Fielder said. "Hit the bottom of the ball."
During the streak, Webb's sinker – already regarded with Johan Santana's changeup as a contender for baseball's best pitch – took on a lifelike quality. It might as well pay Social Security taxes, the way hitters from Florida, San Diego, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington and Atlanta referred to it as if it were the culprit of their maladies and not the man who threw it.
The pitch takes on different incarnations. The hardest sinker dives straight down, almost like a split-finger fastball, and of it Brewers manager Ned Yost said: "It's like trying to hit a lead ball." Another fades away, either from outside the strike zone to the corner or from the inside corner to the dirt against right-handers, prompting Brewers catcher Johnny Estrada – Webb's catcher in Arizona last season – to say: "It is unfair how many ways it moves."
Best of all was Diamondbacks second baseman Orlando Hudson, the superlative defender who danced when he heard Toronto had traded him to the Diamondbacks. He could play behind Webb, an infielder's dream, and see the sinker's movement first-hand.
"If you didn't know better," Hudson said, "you'd think he's cheating. It's … it's … "
In lieu of a proper adjective, Hudson whistled.
"It takes some luck," Melvin said, "but it also takes a lot of skill, and his skill over these 42 innings was like nothing I've ever seen."
In the end, Fielder did as he said he would, stroking a ball to the opposite field for an RBI single. When Webb returned to the dugout at the end of the first, Melvin greeted him – fear of jinxing scared Melvin into keeping his distance – and the rest of his teammates gave their best wishes. Catcher Chris Snyder stuck out his hand for a shake and instead got a slap from Webb's glove, as if Webb wanted to say that eight innings remained and the Diamondbacks had plenty of time to win.
They did, 3-2, thanks to Webb. He worked seven innings, allowed two runs on five hits, walked one and struck out five. Despite struggling with command – Webb went three-ball counts eight times – he still won his sixth consecutive decision and moved to 14-8 with a 2.63 ERA – primo Cy Young territory.
More than that, Webb was excited about how he had done against Fielder. He forgot that Fielder actually broke the streak with a single.
"Prince didn't get a hit, right?" Webb asked.
He thought it was sacrifice fly. The ovations, the euphoria, the heat – everything amalgamated into a slight memory lapse. It had been a long day – and though perfection had eluded him, it remained Brandon Webb's day. So nobody said anything to make him believe otherwise.
- Brandon Webb