July 24, 2009
When I first heard that Mark Buehrle had thrown a perfect game, I went through a quick mental calculus that minimized the feat almost immediately. I figured it was a getaway day that featured the kind of strike zone a command pitcher like Buehrle would exploit. Thinking about the Rays, I dismissed them as a team that can't hit lefties, and one that likely played some of its bench players for the day game after a night game that closed the four-game set. It seemed to me, initially, that this would be the perfect setup for a pitching feat, one where the context of the performance was as critical to the story as the performance itself.
As it turns out, I was wrong about all of that. My first clue was that Buehrle threw 116 pitches, 4.3 per plate appearance, out of line for a pitcher of his ilk. He threw 40 balls. He threw 76 strikes to retire 27 batters despite having just six strikeouts. That's not the line of a pitcher throwing to a big strike zone. The Rays took 61 pitches, not the act of a team looking to get to the next city. Eric Cooper called 40 of those pitches balls and just 21 of them strikes, not the approach of a home-plate umpire checking his watch. I could sit here and pick apart any individual call, but then again, I could do that for any of the 15 games played yesterday. The second inning was typical, as Buehrle got ahead 0-2 on all three batters without a swing and miss (four called strikes, two fouls), then went to 3-2, 2-2, and 2-2 before getting the outs.
As a result, the time of the game and the travel schedules of the participants cannot be used to wave away Buehrle's feat. It's clear that his perfect game wasn't the product of some outsized strike zone or a hacktastic opponent.
The Rays took two-thirds of Buehrle's first pitches, 10 for strikes and eight for balls. They got themselves ahead in the count with increasing frequency as the game wore on, but were never able to convert good situations because of how effectively Buehrle changed locations and speeds. He forced the Rays to take a number of weak swings with two strikes throughout the game. Buehrle was down 2-0 to B.J. Upton in the fourth, battled back to 3-2, and got him swinging on what was a terrible swing at a changeup over the outside corner. He fell behind Gabe Kapler 2-0 in the sixth, then got a fastball up and in that Kapler could only bounce to third base. Two batters later he had his only 3-0 count of the day, then slipped in two high strikes to Jason Bartlett, and eventually retired him on a grounder to short.
Kapler came into the game with an OPS above 1.000 against lefties; Bartlett had that going for him as well. A year after being susceptible to southpaws, the Rays are actually a bit better against them than they are against righties. The lineup they played yesterday consisted of eight regulars or platoon regulars and Michel Hernandez, starting in the usual spot for a backup catcher. This wasn't Eric Milton's no-hitter a decade ago against the Salt Lake City Bees dressed in Angels gear; this was beating the starting lineup of a team that came in with an .800 OPS against southpaws.
The Rays really made Buehrle work in the eighth, when he threw 17 pitches, 12 of them strikes, in what appeared to be a determined effort to challenge the hitters. (It's notable that Buehrle was far from dominant-the Rays swung at 55 pitches yesterday, and made some contact on 47 of them.) Carlos Pena, Ben Zobrist, and Pat Burrell had professional, patient, high-quality at-bats… and all went back to the dugout unhappy.
What was remarkable about the game was how rarely the Rays came close to hits. There were a couple of foul balls late in the game, one by Upton, one by Burrell, that nearly snapped the string of outs. Alexei Ramirez made a couple of nice plays, but they were nothing outstanding. Until the play that made DeWayne Wise's short career, the Rays didn't have anything notably close to a hit.
The Wise play is the signature moment of this game; it deserves every bit of attention, and Wise every ounce of praise, that you can bestow upon it. Sometimes, great plays at the wall don't so much save a homer as they do save a double, or add some unnecessary effort to what should be an F8 at the track. This play, though… this was a great catch. Wise, playing somewhat shallow and in straightaway center field, covered a tremendous amount of ground just in getting to the wall, timed his jump perfectly, and took away a home run-the ball was over the line and almost behind the fence when he caught it-from Kapler, then recovered from the impact at the wall to recover the ball with his bare hand as he stumbled away.
Had Nyjer Morgan made the catch in the eighth inning of a dreary Nationals blowout loss, it would have been the play of the day. Wise made it to convert the 25th out of a perfect game for a team in contention. We hype things to the moon these days, and we become jaded because of it, but this catch is worth every bit of hype you can crank up. It was sublime.
What was most enjoyable about the game was watching Buehrle work. He operates so quickly that he was actually into his windup a couple of times and had to stop because the batter wasn't ready. You can take a tape of this game and make every pitcher in the world, eight to 80, watch it twice a week-this is how you do the job. There is a rhythm to pitching, to repeating a complicated set of movements over and over, and when you work at a pace, you make that job so much easier for yourself.
I was prepared to find reasons to downplay the 18th perfect game in major league history. I was set to point to a strike zone or a lineup or a plane waiting on the tarmac. There's nothing there, nothing, that can take away from what Mark Buehrle did yesterday. He moved the ball around, he threw strikes, he changed speeds, and my god he worked quickly. It was a display of pitching that deserves the one word that will always be attached to it: perfect.