Joe Posnanski
Sunday May 30th, 2010

So you are no doubt asking: What the heck is going on here? Another perfect game? These used to be the rarest of feats. Perfect games used to be like solar eclipses and cheerful Pearl Jam songs. Now, they happen about as often as 100-degree days in Arizona. It's strange. One of the few joyous moments of my sports childhood happened in 1981 when Cleveland's Len Barker threw a perfect game against Toronto. It made the Cleveland Indians the centerpiece of baseball for a while, because no pitcher had thrown a perfect game in 13 years and no pitcher would throw a perfect game for three years afterward. Lenny Barker got to be famous for a while.

Now? Well, Oakland's Dallas Braden had barely finishing showering after his perfect game before someone threw another one. That someone was Roy Halladay, who was masterful on Saturday night in South Florida. What struck me about his perfect game was that from about the fifth inning on, there seemed almost no doubt that he would do it. Halladay was so sharp, so on, so confident, so much in control, that he turned the improbable into the expected, he made a perfect game feel oddly routine -- it would have been a SURPRISE if one of the Marlins had reached base in the late innings. But, we'll get back to Halladay in a minute.

Halladay's perfecto was the third in baseball in less than a year, which is unprecedented -- there was only one perfect game in the 41 years between 1923 and 1964, and that was Don Larsen in the '56 World Series. It was the sixth perfect game in the last 12 years. There have been 18 "official" perfect games since 1900 -- these would not include Harvey Haddix's 12-innings of perfection or Pedro Martinez throwing nine perfect but then giving up a hit in the 10th inning -- and 11 of them have come since 1981, that day when Lenny Barker made news.

You always have to be weary of calling anything "a trend." You might remember that crazy May in 2002 when Mike Cameron and Shawn Green each hit four home runs in a game. And then, the very next year, Carlos Delgado did it. Then there were stories and conversations about how the four-homer game had become devalued; everyone was doing it. Of course, no one has hit four homers in a game since.

Still, there does seem something a bit more at play here with all these perfect games. After all, there have been a few near-misses too. Jonathan Sanchez was an error away from a perfect game last year. Mark Buehrle was just one walk away -- a walk to Sammy Sosa -- from a perfect game in 2007. Just this month, Johnny Cueto was an infield single away from a perfect game, Mat Latos allowed only an infield single (followed by an error), and on Friday Matt Cain threw one bad pitch to Mark Reynolds, gave up the double, and retired the next 22 in a row.

It seems to me -- and, again, I don't want to try and read too much into things -- that a bit of the mystique of the perfect game has faded. One of the most fascinating bits of sports history to me revolves around Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile. There was this huge build-up -- who would be the first miler to break four minutes? There were actually some people who believed that it was not humanly possible to break four minutes, that there was some sort of wall and the human body was simply incapable of crashing through.*

*As a side note, there were similar doubts later about pilots breaking the sound barrier.

Well, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile on May 6, 1954, and it was a major event -- later chosen by many as the greatest athletic achievement of the 20th century. But here's the fascinating bit: 46 days later, John Landy not only broke the four-minute mile, but broke Bannister's world record. He ran the mile in 3:57.9. Bannister and Landy ran against each other later in the year, and both broke four minutes. At the British Games in 1955, three more runners broke the four-minute mark in one race. By the end of 1956, you could not expect to win a world-class race by merely breaking four minutes. By the end of the decade, 3:55 had been broken as well.

Now, much of this was probably just the natural progression of things. In track, times get faster over time. But I do think that once Bannister broke the four-minute barrier, well, he showed it wasn't a "barrier" at all. He created a new pace for runners, a pace that they would have to achieve if they wanted to be the fastest in the world. And there are always people who want to be the fastest in the world.

I can't help but wonder if that's what is going on with the perfect game now. For years, there were all these crazy superstitions built around the perfect pitcher: Don't talk to the pitcher. ... Don't mention it on the radio. ... Managers have to stay in exactly the same position. I have always found it telling that Jim Bunning, in the final innings of his perfect game in 1964, was just yapping away, reminding teammates to be alive because he was throwing a perfect game, breaking every rule of perfect game etiquette. And he finished off the perfect game, the first thrown in the National League since 1880.

And then, think about this: Even AFTER Bunning threw his perfect game, the strange customs of not talking to the pitcher and not mentioning the perfect game and all that stayed intact. That's pretty weird, no? For 80 years, with more or less everyone following all these superstitions, there was not a single perfect game in the National League. Then, Bunning comes along, breaks every one of those mirrors, walks under every perfect-game ladder, crosses every baseball black cat and actually DOES THROW a perfect game. And, somehow, people continued to believe in the superstitions more than they believed in Bunning's perfecto.

Faded versions of those perfect-game superstitions exist now -- players still tend to avoid the pitcher throwing a perfecto -- but it really isn't as big a deal. Announcers will tell their viewers and listeners about a perfect game. Fans will buzz about it while it's happening. Like I say, I think some of the mystique is gone. It's certainly very difficult to retire 27 batters in a row, but it seems that now pitchers aren't making it ANY MORE difficult than it needs to be. Everyone knows it's possible. What was so telling about Braden's perfect game -- and then Halladay's on Saturday -- was that there really wasn't much drama. The ninth innings were without incident or the need for great plays. I have no doubt that the pitchers' nerves were jangling; but, if anything, the hitters looked even more nervous.

If you were paying attention to the right thing, you might have predicted that Saturday was going to be Halladay's night, based on the first batter he faced. That first batter was Chris Coughlin, and Halladay struck him out on a 3-2 pitch that may or may not have been "a strike." It might have been on the outside corner. It might have been off the outside corner. It was right on the line -- even on replay, I'm not sure which way I would call it. But while it may or may not have been "a strike" -- quotations around the word -- it definitely was a strike as called by home place umpire Mike DiMuro. So, yes, the ump was going to give Halladay the corner. And giving Roy Halladay the corner is like giving Phil Ivey pocket aces and Roger Federer an open crosscourt. The next batter, Gaby Sanchez, facing a 3-2 count of his own, swung and missed on a curveball that may or may not have caught the outside corner. Hanley Ramirez worked for a three-ball count, too, and then took a cutter on the outside corner and grounded out on a fastball on the outside corner. Halladay was working the extremes.

Second inning, there was a little bit more of the same. Jorge Cantu worked a three-ball count, then fouled off a strike and foul-tipped strike three into the glove. Has anyone ever thrown a perfect game while working three-ball counts to the first four batters? Well, since there have only been 20 of them, I'm going to guess: No. Then, things started to get a bit easier. Dan Uggla faced five pitches before striking out. And finally, Cody Ross grounded out to third on the first pitch, Halladay's first simple out. Halladay fed off the momentum. He needed just nine pitches in the third and 12 in the fourth.

One of the beautiful things about Roy Halladay is that, more than anyone of his time, he seems beyond pitch counts. He's very efficient with his pitches, of course. Since 2005 he has thrown 39 complete games -- CC Sabathia, in second place, is 15 complete games behind -- and this is in large part because he knows how to work through a lineup and keep his pitch count under control. In those 39 complete games, he has averaged fewer than 110 pitches.

But, he also has a great sense of how to maintain his stuff through outings. He doesn't seem to tire the way other pitchers do. He threw 132 pitches in losing a tough 2-1 game against Pittsburgh -- there never seemed to be any way that he was coming out. And so in this game he would throw 115 pitches, but there just never seemed to be any way that he was going to give up the walk or infield single or error that could bust up the perfecto. He was indomitable out there. He had a seven-pitch battle with Uggla in the fifth before striking him out. He worked a three-ball count to Cameron Maybin in the sixth but mesmerized him into grounding out on a fastball that bore in on his hands. He worked another three ball count to Gaby Sanchez in the seventh, and got him to line out on a curveball.

He then had his final tough battle of the game -- against Ramirez. He almost hit him with a pitch -- wouldn't THAT have been a lousy way to lose perfection -- and then on a full count, Halladay threw an inside cutter right on the cusp. His control is so good, so precise, so overwhelming that it doesn't just challenge hitters -- it challenges umpires, too. DiMuro called it strike three.

It was a thing of beauty -- a perfect reduction of the Roy Halladay pitching genius. He was working the alleys, daring hitters, imposing his will. Other pitchers look at Halladay as a freak of nature -- nobody else can throw that heavy, cutting fastball on the corner time after time after time. Nobody else has the same knack for making hitters' bats feel hollow. Cantu came closest to getting a hit in the eighth -- he smashed a hard grounder that third baseman Juan Castro had to work hard to grab. After that, it was strikeout and pop-out to end the inning. And the ninth went down easy. The game ended with Ronny Paulino hitting a grounder toward the hole between short and third, but too slowly to get through. After Castro threw to Ryan Howard to end things, Halladay smiled for the first time all night.

And Halladay did not stop smiling for a while after that. To be honest, it was a little bit strange to see that smile -- we are so used to the hard look that Halladay wears on the mound, a man at work. But, undoubtedly, he wants to enjoy his moment in time, his sweet moment of perfection. He should enjoy it. The man is having a Hall of Fame career, and this is the pinnacle right here. And, let's be honest, it could be only a matter of hours before the next perfect game happens.

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