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After pinch hitter John Jaso flies to right for the second out, the Mariners send up Brendan Ryan to bat for their number 9 hitter. Humber knows that he has the advantage with Ryan coming in cold off the bench. But the count again goes full, and with everyone in the park standing, a thought enters Humber's mind. A year earlier he watched Verlander's no-hitter in Toronto, and he remembers how the Tigers ace finished off the Blue Jays with one of the nastiest sliders he'd ever seen. Humber decides he's going to mimic that pitch now—but when he lets it go he thinks, I just walked him.
The ball shoots down and away, into the dirt, but Ryan is fooled. He tries to check his swing, but plate umpire Brian Runge signals a strikeout as the ball bounces away from Pierzynski. As Ryan turns to argue with Runge, Humber screams to his catcher, "Throw the ball! Throw the ball!" Pierzynski retrieves the ball, guns it to first baseman Paul Konerko, and Humber is suddenly a baseball immortal. "If Ryan goes there [instead of arguing]," Humber says, now, "I think he makes it."
The rest is a blur. Looking back, Humber remembers fellow White Sox starter Jake Peavy leaping onto his back, then the rest of the team following on the dog pile. He remembers the ovation from the road crowd as he walked off the field. He remembers sneaking into a storage closet in the clubhouse to call Kristan, who in those final nervous moments could feel the baby kicking. The first words out of his mouth: "Did I just send you into labor?"
Humber also remembers a quiet moment later in the locker room, when he thought, O.K., I'm here. I'm going to be good from now on.
Two months later the Giants' Matt Cain took the mound on a cool night in San Francisco and dazzled the Astros, striking out 14 in one of the most dominating perfect games ever thrown. "It felt like the World Series," Cain said. "But it almost felt a little bit louder, a bit crazier than that. I've never had that much excitement in every pitch, every strike, every swing."
Two months after that, on another sunny afternoon in Seattle, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez was also perfect, in a 1--0 win over the Rays. It was the first time in major league history that three perfectos had been tossed in a single season.
From 1900 to 1980, there were seven perfect games—on average, you were fortunate to see one every 11 years. Of the 14 perfect games since, five have come in the last three seasons. There are many explanations for the spate of perfect games and no-hitters: hitters are striking out more than ever, or maybe pitchers are flourishing in an era of steroid testing. Whatever the reason, there are those who say that the mystique of the perfect game is fading. In May 2010, unheralded A's lefthander Dallas Braden, a sub-.500 pitcher with a career ERA higher than 4.00—threw one. And now Humber. The perfecto has become a symbol of the randomness in the game.
For perennial Cy Young Award candidates such as Cain and Hernandez, a perfect game was a logical résumé entry, one more accomplishment to cross off the Great Pitcher's bucket list. For Humber, it was ... what? A fluke? A preview of things to come? Humber heard all this talk. "After the game it was like, I've got to prove that the perfect game was not a fluke—I almost felt like I had to prove that I deserved to be on that list," he says. "I was thankful for it, but at the same time I wanted to make sure that everyone knew that this wasn't a joke. I'm really good enough to do this."
The days and weeks after the game were a whirlwind. He appeared on Letterman, reading a Top 10 List. (No. 9 Thought That Went Through Philip Humber's Mind During His Perfect Game: "Thank goodness for my catcher, A.J. Pierzanky ... Piernoftski ... Pierzonski ... whatever.") He was in a hotel room in San Francisco when he was awakened by his chirping cellphone—it was a call from President Obama. The interviews became exhausting. "It was very intense for me in a short period of time—and I wasn't prepared for that." As he says, "It's just strange when your Wikipedia page goes from two paragraphs to three pages."
Every time Humber took the mound, he tried to be the pitcher he was in Seattle—but competence seemed unattainable, much less perfection. In his next start, he allowed nine runs in five innings. Two outings later he was bombed for eight runs in 2 1/3 innings. Every time he fell short of the new standard he set for himself, he pushed himself harder. He began spending more time than ever in the video room. He played with every imaginable grip for his pitches. He threw extra bullpen sessions. He ran more, lifted more. He asked teammates how they dealt with their struggles. He couldn't understand why he couldn't recapture the magic. "I just feel lost," Humber said to Cooper at one point. "I don't know what I'm doing out there."