Unheralded Braden keeps making us believe this is his defining year
Maybe the most important thing to know about perfect game pitcher
He was the 1,383rd player taken in the 2004 draft after he graduated from Alonzo Stagg High in Stockton, Calif. He just showed up at American River College in Sacramento -- the American River coach,
Braden was never a prospect in the minor leagues, either. Even in 2005, when he won 15 games and was named the team's organizational Player of the Year, he was still ranked as the 19th-best A's prospect by
No, he was never highly regarded. He was not regarded at all. He was a left-handed pitcher with a Member's Only fastball -- mid-80s -- a bland slider and this one sleight-of-hand pitch that would disappear into hitters' blind spots. Or anyway, it disappeared into
Braden did have something else, though. He had this bold certainty that he belonged. Who knows where that sort of confidence comes from? Braden's childhood has been written about before -- it wasn't easy. He lost his mother when he was a senior in high school. For a while, he lived in the hotel that his grandmother
And yet, there was this boldness about him, this conviction that overpowered the way other people viewed his talent. These are the players that fascinate me most -- the ones who deeply believe they're going to make it even when all available evidence suggests they probably will not.
All of this leads to this season, which is rapidly becoming the season of Dallas Braden.
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First, he publicly challenged
Second, well, that happened Sunday in Oakland. There was no reason to expect much excitement on this Mother's Day. The A's were playing the Rays, the second-highest scoring offense in the league. Braden had been OK all year, but nothing more; less than two weeks earlier the Rays had knocked him out of the game with nobody out in the fifth inning. There was no promotion going. It wasn't even a free parking day in Oakland. Only 12,228 showed up -- a bunch of them sitting in section 209 in honor of Stockton. Braden breezed through the Rays in the first inning on nine pitches. The fastest pitch was 88 mph -- and it was a ball.
A screwball, as you probably know, is a pitch that breaks the opposite way of a curveball. So, when a lefty throws it, it breaks AWAY from a right-handed hitter. That pitch Braden throws that breaks away from righties is now widely viewed by pitching experts as a change-up and not a screwball -- not that it really matters what it's called. It is always interesting how pitches change names. There was, according to
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Braden had a slightly tougher time in the second -- he stuck mostly with hard stuff, or the hardest stuff he could manage. At the end of a six-pitch battle, he challenged
To pitch like this -- with an uncertain fastball and an out-pitch that goes Little League slow -- takes command, and it takes precision, and perhaps most of all it takes brashness.
By the fifth inning, people began to realize that something was happening. Braden struck out Longoria on the fadeaway, got Pena to punch a pretty easy fly ball to left field, induced Upton to beat a ground ball to third. That was 15 outs in a row. The sixth inning was a thing of beauty. He struck out
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Baseball is the only sport that offers precisely this sort of drama -- no other sport offers perfection as an option. Well, there's bowling. But among the team sports -- you really can't have a perfect game in football. High-scoring basketball games can stop the nation, but nobody is ever scoring 100 points again. Shutouts in hockey are not uncommon, and in soccer even less uncommon.
Only baseball, with its precise scorekeeping and thorough record-keeping, offers a real shot at perfection. There had been 18 perfect games thrown in baseball history, though for some reason these always include two thrown in 1880 (five days apart, no less) when it took eight balls to walk somebody, the mound was 50 feet from home plate and pitchers were still supposed to throw underhand. Completely different game then ... but baseball does cherish its past.
The first modern National League perfect game didn't happen until 1964 -- that was
Last year, of course,
The thing is ... if you had to bet on someone throwing a perfect game in today's era, you might think to bet on somebody with a 98-mph fastball and a mean streak to go with it. But you would probably bet wrong. Since 1994 -- going into Sunday -- there had been five perfect games. And four of them were thrown by what you might call, yes, crafty left-handers.
And THEN there was Braden. He made it through the seventh inning with seven pitches. The eighth was his obvious challenge -- he had to face the middle of that Rays lineup again. He got Longoria to fly out on the fadeaway. Pena hit a foul pop-up on a high slider and Kouzmanoff made a dazzling catch as he ran into the third base dugout.
The ninth went smoothly, too. There really was no drama in this thing, no dazzling plays, no near-hits. Navarro did smack a line drive to left, but the ball hung up and was a pretty easy play for left fielder
It's hard to remember anyone crashing into America's sports consciousness quite like Braden -- FIRST gaining some brand of fame for talking, and THEN backing up his talk in the most dramatic way. Athletes say all the time, "Nobody believed in me." Usually they are just talking -- usually there were plenty of people who believed. But, in this case, it's true. Few did believe in Dallas Braden. He somehow kept believing in himself.
"There's nothing you can say," Braden said in his television interview immediately after he became famous forever. "It's perfect."