By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
SEATTLE — At the beginning of the eighth inning Saturday, the Safeco Field crowd of 22,742 started to cheer for Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Philip Humber.
It’s tough to blame them. The right-hander was flirting with history and the Seattle Mariners had given the fans nothing to cheer about.
Six outs later, Humber was mobbed at the pitching mound by his teammates in a type of celebration that has only happened 20 other times. The crowd stood in unison and cheered the White Sox 4-0 victory over the Mariners — more accurately they were cheering Humber.
He had just thrown the 21st perfect game in the history of Major League Baseball.
After the game, Humber said that he didn’t hear the Seattle crowd as it switched allegiances and started to cheer for him.
“Honestly, I didn’t hear them,” Humber said. “I didn’t hear them until after the game. Obviously you hear the noise, but you don’t know if they are cheering for you or cheering for whoever.”
The victory was also the first complete game of Humber’s major league career. He tied his career-high with nine strikeouts and threw just 96 pitches to complete his masterpiece. It was the fewest pitches in a perfect game since July 18, 1999, when New York Yankees pitcher David Cone threw 88 in sitting down all 27 Montreal Expos.
“Humber pitched a great ball game,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “(White Sox catcher A.J.) Pierzynski did a great job working with him out there. We never really got anything going.”
Saturday’s perfect game was the MLB’s first since Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay did it against the Florida Marlins on May 29, 2010, and it was the first in the American League since Oakland’s Dallas Braden dominated Tampa Bay on May 9 of the same year.
The 29-year old Humber was the model of efficiency throughout the afternoon. Through eight innings, no Mariners hitter had seen ball three in the count and just six batters had seen ball two.
“Humber worked ahead all day long,” Wedge said. “When he did get behind and had to come in, we missed fastballs. So, it’s a bad combination. But he pitched a heck of a ball game.”
Nerves seemed to catch up to Humber in the ninth inning. Mariners left fielder Michael Saunders led off the ninth inning and saw Humber fall behind 3-0 in the count.
Humber’s thought process was simple when that happened.
“Throw a strike,” Humber said. “Get it over the plate somehow. I think that (a walk) would be the last way I’d want to lose it.”
Humber bore down and took control, throwing three consecutive strikes to retire Saunders. The next batter, pinch hitter John Jaso, flied out to right field and Humber found himself one out away from perfection. Wedge then sent Brendan Ryan to the plate to pinch hit for No. 9 hitter Munenori Kawasaki.
“I was so fired up to get the opportunity,” Ryan said. “You know, get the chance to wreck it. My heart might have been pounding harder than his was. You’ve got to want that opportunity.”
The final at-bat didn’t lack drama.
Ryan became just the second Mariner hitter to see Humber miss the strike zone three times in one at bat. With the count full, Ryan got a fastball from Humber and just missed connecting with it. Instead, he fouled it into the press box behind home plate.
“If I had one pitch to take back, it would be that 3-2 fastball,” Ryan said. “I had a good rip at that one, but that was the only heater I saw. That’s tough. I think I just really would have liked that pitch back.”
Humber’s next pitch was a slider on which Ryan tried to check his swing. But home plate umpire Brian Runge signaled that Ryan went around for strike three.
For the briefest moment, however, the perfect game was still in jeopardy. Humber’s slider had hit the dirt and bounced away from White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who quickly retreated, grabbed the ball and threw Ryan out at first base to end the game.
“I’m going to stay on the heater there,” Ryan said. “I don’t want to get beat by a fastball in that position. It takes a lot of guts to make that pitch. So, hats off to A.J., and of course Humber.”
Wedge and Ryan both argued the called third strike to no avail.
After the game, Ryan wouldn’t address his called third strike.
“I don’t really want to talk about it,” he said. “I will say that was a pretty outstanding game he threw. He had his slider working, obviously, and pounded the zone, kept his pitch count down. Pretty outstanding stuff from him today.”
“I didn’t think he went, but I didn’t take a look at the replay,” Wedge said.
Mariners starting pitcher Blake Beavan, who pitched six innings and gave up seven hits and three earned runs, said Humber’s choice of a slider on that final pitch displayed confidence.
“It just shows you that he’s got confidence in anything he throws,” Beavan said. “Watching the game today, he could throw anything at any time for strikes. We had some opportunities to get some hits off of him, too, and everything was going his way. That’s how baseball is sometimes.”
Humber got all the offensive support he needed when first baseman Paul Konerko led off the second inning with a solo home run. The White Sox scored two more runs in the third inning with back-to-back RBI singles by Konerko and Pierzynski. Alejandro De Aza added an insurance run with an RBI single in the ninth inning that scored Jackson High School alum Brent Lillibridge.
For the Mariners, Saturday’s loss needs to be a learning experience, Wedge said.
“When you go through something like this?it’s history, but it’s also something you have to learn from,” Wedge said. “You feel where you are heartbeat-wise in the later innings of that game and learn from that — at certain points in time when you go through different at-bats (to analyze) what happened and why. You’ve got to learn from anything like this. You’ve got to take something from it and make sure you get better for it.”
Mariners left fielder Chone Figgins said the team needs to put the perfect game behind them.
“Just be ready tomorrow,” Figgins said. “There is still a long way to go. It’s one of them freak days in baseball. You come to the ballpark. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Follow Herald writer Aaron Lommers on Twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.