SEATTLE – When the afternoon began Saturday at Safeco Field – a crisp, sunny 56-degree spring day – there was little in the air to suggest anything historic. After all, this was the pedestrian Chicago White Sox against the perennially rebuilding Mariners.
But at 3:23 p.m., as Brendan Ryan stepped to the plate, a crowd of 22,472 was standing and cheering for something monumental. And Philip Humber delivered it a couple of minutes later, a slider off the plate on which Ryan swung and missed – though Ryan argued he checked his swing – and it was done.
Humber thus authored the 21st perfect game in the history of major league baseball, 4-0, testimony not only to his perseverance but the idea that the gods sometimes smile on everyman as well as the legends.
“I don’t know what my name is doing on that list,” Humber said. “It’s so humbling; it’s an awesome feeling. People are telling me I’ve got to get this (uniform) for the Hall of Fame. I’ve been to the Hall of Fame, and to think something of mine is going to be theirs is pretty awesome.”
To date, at least, Humber’s name is one of the least decorated on a list of perfect-game pitchers that includes people like Don Larsen, Jim Bunning and Randy Johnson. He was drafted third overall out of Rice by the Mets in 2004, and for a long time, had been regarded as a washout.
Until last year, when he was 9-9 with a 3.75 earned-run average for the White Sox, he was so lightly regarded that Oakland claimed him off waivers in December 2010 and then waived him 32 days later, when he was claimed by the Sox.
He confounded the Mariners mostly with breaking stuff, particularly a slider. Dustin Ackley tagged one of Humber’s pitches to right field in the fourth inning – the M’s best bid for a hit – but rangy Alex Rios backpedaled and tracked it down.
“It was hard enough that I had to jump a little to get it,” Rios said, “but I had it the whole time.”
Seemingly, so did Humber, mowing down the Mariners methodically after his team got him three early runs. Seattle helped him immeasurably in the middle innings, as he consumed only 20 pitches to get the nine hitters in the fourth, fifth and sixth. In his only other start of 2012, Monday night against Baltimore, he had labored through 51/3 innings, throwing 115 pitches.
“That was a roller-coaster start,” said the likable Texan. “Today, what I wanted to concentrate on was throwing first-pitch strikes and getting the first guy out in every inning.
“Those innings there (in the middle), it seemed like they were really aggressive. They mis-hit some balls, and it made for some easy outs.”
As the tension began growing in the ballpark, Humber tried to stay loose. He didn’t indulge baseball convention and keep to himself.
“I don’t believe in superstitions,” he said. “When guys were getting hits and scoring runs, I was telling them, ‘Great job.’ I don’t like to be isolated like that.”
So here he was, taking the mound in the bottom of the ninth – as he put it, “I’m standing there with a chance to throw a perfect game.”
First was Michael Saunders, the lanky outfielder. Humber, overanxious, was extended to a 3-0 count before he gathered himself, fighting back to 3-2 and fanning Saunders on a slider.
“Get it over the plate somehow,” Humber said, recalling his thought process at 3-0. “That would be the last way I’d want to lose (a perfect game). You want to go with your best stuff, over the plate and challenging guys.”
Then came John Jaso, pinch-hitting for struggling Miguel Olivo. The left-handed Jaso lifted a fly ball to Rios, who squeezed it routinely.
“He left it up a little bit,” Jaso said. “I felt I took a good swing at him. I just got a little loopy. That’s how baseball works.”
Finally, there was Brendan Ryan, pinch-hitting for Munenori Kawasaki. Humber went to 3-2 again, and made his 96th pitch a slider.
It wasn’t a good one, but good enough. Ryan, trying to check his swing on a delivery outside, was rung up by plate umpire Brian Runge and disputed the call hotly.
“I felt I jerked it a little bit,” said Humber. The ball got past catcher A.J. Pierzynski, maybe 35 feet behind and to his right. Ryan lit out belatedly for first base, Pierzynski located the ball and fired cleanly to Paul Konerko, and it was over.
Humber collapsed to his knees and was mobbed by teammates and saluted lustily by the crowd. Then he got a water-bucket shower on the field
Rios, a 31-year-old veteran, called the moment “the biggest rush of my career.”
Actually, it was a shared rush – Humber’s, his teammates’, and yes, even Safeco Field’s.