Tuesday May 11th, 2010

That was one magical day for Dallas Braden on Sunday. But now that he has been perfect, one question remains for the Oakland left-hander: Where does he go from here? Well, he does get the ball Friday night in Anaheim against the Angels, but what then? It's been 88 years since anyone had to wonder this much about what becomes of a perfect game pitcher.

Braden became the 19th pitcher to throw a perfect game when he beat Tampa Bay, the team with the best record in baseball, 4-0, on Sunday. Among those 19, only Charlie Robertson of the 1922 White Sox was less developed as a big league pitcher than was Braden, a guy who had only 17 career wins and never had finished eight innings in a big league game, never mind nine, at the time of his perfecto.

Robertson, the most unlikely pitcher ever to be perfect, was making only his fifth career start when he threw his perfect game. He was 26 -- the same age as Braden is -- and would go on to a middling 49-80 career record, making for the fewest career wins of any pitcher who threw a perfect game.

Braden should have a better career than did Robertson, but can he become the next Mark Buehrle, who preceded Braden in the Perfect Game Club and has 137 career wins?

"Because of his slight build, that's the only question as to whether he is going to be a really good pitcher," Oakland general manager Billy Beane said about Braden, who is listed at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds. "If he physically holds up, he has everything else to have a long, successful career.

"This kid's not afraid. He's absolutely fearless. He's a great athlete and he's got that changeup. People ask me if he still throws a screwball, but he doesn't. It's more of a fade changeup. His fastball is 87, 88 and he throws it for strikes.

"Last year he was our Opening Night starter, and one of the reasons why we picked him was because he is fearless. He's got a lot of Wolverine in him."

Braden has a very strong sense of who he is and where he is from. He takes pride in his roots in Stockton, Calif., the city Forbes last year called the Most Miserable City in America for its high rates of crime, unemployment and taxes. (Surely it's just a coincidence that Braden's first and last names are an anagram for "Real Badlands.") When I asked him Sunday night about sending game-used equipment to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he replied that his hat, glove and jersey were bound not for Cooperstown but for Stockton, to be displayed in a museum there.

The indomitable will forged in Stockton already has served him well. Braden was raised by a single mom, Jodie Atwood, and found his own share of trouble as a kid in Stockton. When he was a junior in high school, and his mom was diagnosed with skin cancer, Braden moved in with his grandmother, Peggy Lindsey, at a motel she operated. Lindsey's firm hand, and the death of Jodie the following year, moved Dallas to become more responsible, as well as more serious about his approach to baseball.

Braden was a 24th-round draft pick in 2004 (726 players were picked ahead of him, including his batterymate Sunday, Landon Powell) and has persevered through the usual physical pitfalls of professional pitching. He turns 27 this summer and still hasn't thrown 150 innings in any baseball year. Braden underwent shoulder surgery in 2006 and a bungled procedure on his right foot last year. While getting a cyst on his foot lanced and drained, a nerve in his foot was severed.

"It's my drive foot," he said this spring. "That's exactly what it feels like all the time: pins and needles. It's just a matter of blocking that out and telling myself the pain isn't there so I can pitch."

Of course, Alex Rodriguez famously found out about Braden's will when the Yankees third baseman crossed the pitching mound in a game April 22, prompting Braden to yell at him on the field and admonish him to reporters after the game. Braden was more upset about what he regarded as an affront to how the game should be played than anything directed at him personally.

"I have an insurmountable respect for the game," Braden said. "For anyone to take what I said out of context was disappointing -- that I was going to throw at anyone or challenge anybody to a fight. This game is so much bigger than me or any one player. I would never do anything to disrespect the game."

The pitching record of Buehrle, who also threw his perfect game against the Rays, stood at 11-3 with a 3.28 ERA immediately after his perfecto last year. (Braden is 4-2 with an almost identical post-perfecto ERA of 3.33.) But the perfect game was not a springboard to bigger things for Buehrle. He struggled after that, going 2-7 with a 4.78 ERA over the remainder of the season.

Still, Buehrle finished with a 3.84 ERA, leaving Kenny Rogers of the 1994 Texas Rangers as the only pitcher to wind up with an ERA worse than 4.00 in the season in which he threw a perfect game. (Rogers finished at 4.46).

Can Braden finish the year with an ERA under 4.00? Can he go on to win 137 games in his career? Baseballreference.com lists 10 pitchers who were most statistically similar to Braden through their age 25 seasons. Three of the pitchers are still active: Sean Marshall of the Cubs, Boof Bonser of the Red Sox and Scott Baker of the Twins. Of the seven similar pitchers no longer pitching, Shawn Boskie (49-63) went on to have the most wins. Those seven pitchers averaged just 25 wins in their career.

Is Braden the next Buehrle or the next Boskie? The odds would seem to be against Braden carving out a Buehrle-type career. Then again, what do the odds mean when you're a 24th-round pick from America's Most Miserable City and own a fastball that can't break 90, a surgically repaired shoulder and a foot with a severed nerve -- and one of only 19 perfect games in history? Go ahead: you tell Braden he can't do it. It's one thing to mess with his mound; it's quite another to mess with his dreams.

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