When it was over, when his catcher had gathered the remains of one final hitter, and when his teammates had burst from his dugout after a little more than two-and-a-quarter hours of perfection, Philip Humber fell to the infield grass Saturday afternoon at Safeco Field.
In a professional career that had begun one pick after Justin Verlander in the 2004 draft, that had seen one splashy trade (from the New York Mets to the Minnesota Twins for Johan Santana), and that had endured Tommy John surgery, two waiver claims, a line drive to the face and the general disappointment of a top prospect gone so-so, Humber had finally – and sweetly – found his place in the game.
The 29-year-old fifth starter for the Chicago White Sox, in the 30th start of his big-league career, threw the 21st perfect game in history, the 19th of the modern era.
Over 96 pitches in a ballpark and against a lineup both built for a pitcher, Humber struck out nine Seattle Mariners in the 4-0 victory. He got five ground-ball outs, 13 fly-ball outs.
In the ninth inning, Humber struck out Michael Saunders on a 3-and-2 slider, got pinch-hitter John Jaso to fly to short right field, and then struck out pinch-hitter Brendan Ryan on a full-count slider.
The final pitch rolled away from White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, and for a moment it appeared Ryan would have a chance to reach first base, killing the perfect game. Ryan believed he'd checked his swing, however, and as he argued with plate umpire Brian Runge, Pierzynski retrieved the ball and – with Humber urging him on – threw the ball to first base.
The 27th consecutive out recorded, Humber half-collapsed and half-threw himself to the turf, as if to honor the strange, magical and dominating performance that is every perfect game, not just his. Within seconds he was buried beneath his fellow White Sox.
To the names Roy Halladay, Randy Johnson, Catfish Hunter, Cy Young, Don Larsen and Sandy Koufax, legends with perfect games, add Philip Humber.
To the most unlikely of 273 no-hitters – including Bud Smith's, Juan Nieves', Jose Jimenez's and Tommy Greene's – add Philip Humber's.
On a Saturday schedule that would see starts by Verlander, Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg and Jered Weaver, the day belonged to Humber, the first to throw a perfect game since Halladay almost two years ago.
In 29 previous career starts since 2007, Humber had not thrown a shutout. He had not thrown a complete game. His career record was 11-10, 9-9 as a starter.
Then, he was throwing fastballs past a Mariners lineup that would not be confused with the elite of the game, but has its capable moments. Then he was freezing a Mariner lineup with sliders and curveballs. And then the Seattle crowd was standing and rooting for the Texas-born right-hander – against its own Mariners – to finish it, to be perfect for an afternoon.
"I mean, I can't even put it into words," Humber said later. "I'm just so happy. There are so many good things happening right now."
He mentioned his wife, told her through the television screen that this had been for her, and the baby that is on the way.
Yes, with the nation's eyes trained toward Boston, the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, and the horror show that is the Red Sox, the story was a continent away, in the right arm of a largely forgotten talent. Once, Humber was going to be the next ace of the Mets (he even wears Tom Seaver's 41 with the White Sox), and then of the Twins, for whom he never made a start. He pitched in eight games for the Kansas City Royals in 2010, then was claimed off waivers by the Oakland A's, then was claimed by the White Sox a month later, before the 2011 season.
A full-time big-leaguer for the first time at 28, Humber made 26 starts and pitched 163 innings for the White Sox in 2011. He won nine games.
There had never, however, been a hint of this, of nine full innings of mis-hits and defensive swings, of 27 up and 27 down. He'd gone to two three-ball counts, both in the ninth inning. In the middle three innings – the fourth through the sixth – Humber threw a total of 20 pitches, almost certainly preserving his energy for the final three.
Humber continued authoritatively, and the Mariners went away meekly, and the last of them swung over the top of one final breaking ball. And while Humber was beneath that tangled mess of ballplayers, he almost certainly had a clear view of history, and of one spectacular day that no one saw coming.
"This is awesome," Humber said. "I'm so thankful."
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