In his last start, against the Tampa Bay Rays, Mark Buehrle was perfect. And perfection is something so rare and beautiful that all we can do when we’re near it is try to seal it tight to preserve it, and then ask and hope and plead that we can have it again.
Tonight, starting against the Twins, Buehrle complied with our wishes for five more innings, running his streak to 45 straight batters retired, extending back to the start before the perfect game.
I expected quite a different game; I expected Buehrle to show either fatigue or lack of focus. I even thought the Twins had been especially lucky to catch him after his feat. But he was both commanding and loose, easy, and fluid. His quick smiles over to his infielders and his consummate ease on the mound showed me the Twins were in trouble.
A perfect game is so rare I can toss out the entire, small treasury of stats on the subject in a few sentences. There have been 18, over 129 years. Two in this decade, the last before Buehrle’s five years ago, thrown by Randy Johnson, at 40 the oldest pitcher to do so. We once went 34 years without one, from 1922 to 1956, and the drought ended in the most spectacular perfecto, Don Larsen’s World Series gem of all gems.
There are a few hall of famers on the very short list—Cy Young, Sandy Koufax—but a surprising number of near-nobodies—Len Barker, Mike Witt. And that fact gives a clue about how and why a perfect game comes to be.
You will need, first of all, a willing opponent, a team to pick on. The Twins have offered themselves up to such service twice, as have the Dodgers. David Cone was able to feast on the Expos, and Kenny Rogers had the Angels of 1994. In pitching a perfecto against the Rays, Buehrle conquered a mighty team at a mighty time.
You will also need a few great fielding plays. Dewayne Wise provided one for Buehrle by robbing Gabe Kapler of a home run. The fielders, if they are typical of our human species, will grow tenser as the innings mount up, knowing that they may be called upon to save the gorgeous artifact the pitcher is creating. And while they wait for this life-and-death duty, they are often very idle in the field while the pitcher deals out strikes and coaxes easy two-hoppers.
Finally, you will need luck. There is no other word for it. In the long journey of collecting 27 outs, way too much can happen. A pebble can happen; a bunt can happen (poor sportsmanship, most would say); a dropped popup can happen. The perfect game requires the stars to align.
So, tonight, as Buehrle notches out after out, I pause to ask myself, What is it I am watching here? No pitcher has thrown two. And back-to-back-ism is just out of the question—that would only be occurring in one of the twelve extra dimensions conceived of in string theory, right?
But the innings roll on. Bear in mind, Buehrle has a no-hitter to his credit as well as his perfecto. And he has gotten just about every Minnesota batter to chop a frail grounder to his alert and able infielders. Through six innings, all Beuhrle has done is get the ball, throw the ball, and retire the batter. He throws strikes and he works at a brisk and apparently happy pace up there.
In the sixth, he clicks off two more outs, and faces Alexi Casilla. Not a formidable hitter under any conditions, but against Buehrle tonight you give Casilla the odds of a bug near a moving windshield.
Buehrle gets two strikes on him, no balls, and you are ready for him to notch his fourth strikeout and end the inning. But Casilla watches a ball, then lays off another outside pitch. He fouls the next pitch off, and then is curious and patient enough to work the count full.
Buehrle throws a pitch inside and we have a walk. It’s truly inside, but it’s close enough to demonstrate the tissue-thin border between baseball success and failure. End of perfection.
As these things often do, the crack widens fast. Denard Span hits a clean and solid and no-doubt-about-it single to center—end of the no-hitter. With two on, Joe Mauer hits an authoritative double that scores Casilla—end of the shutout, and the game is tied.
Buehrle completes the inning by getting Justin Morneau to ground out with the same trademark gentle chopper he’s induced all night. And the White Sox bring him back up for the seventh. This isn’t a pretty inning, for Buehrle will dispense a hit by pitch, three singles, and three runs. After getting another run off Octovio Dotel, the Twins lead 5-1, and Buehrle has no chance of a win after five magnificent innings and two lousy ones.
Scott Baker spent the entire night much in Buehrle’s shadow. As he’s been doing lately, Baker grinds through his outs, throwing a lot of pitches and engendering a lot of foul balls. He gets the outs, mind you, but he needs a lot of pitches to do it and is always on the brink of a sudden homer.
Baker pitches six complete innings and needs 115 pitches to do it. His only blemish is a solo homer from Jermaine Dye in the sixth. Like Buehrle, a long night of excellent pitching doesn’t get on his won-loss record, for the win goes to reliever Jose Mijares, who presides during the Twin’s outburst in the seventh. Joe Nathan gets the save and the Twins are now tied with the White Sox at two games behind Detroit.
The quest for the postseason is advanced by the win, and the rivalry with the Sox is tilted our way by the two wins in the series. But the scoreless game that played out over the first five innings, and even the single runs that each team scored in the sixth, were much more interesting than the mere won-loss result. Baker fought every batter tooth and nail, while Buehrle tossed bait over the side that the Twins quickly nibbled. Baker was trudging and careful; Buehrle relaxed and cool. They both got similar results, but pitched so differently.
Minnesota fans consider the Chicago rivalry their most bitter. It was just last season that we came down to a single game playoff against the Sox and lost the chance to enter the postseason. So when Buehrle got genuine cheers and a standing ovation when he left in the seventh, it was a moment that reminded me of the honorable nature of baseball. He tipped his cap, and I tip mine.