Matchups don't get much more lopsided than Sunday night's tilt between the Astros and Rangers. On one side: Houston's Death Star of a lineup, bristling with young superstar hitters. On the other side: 44-year-old Bartolo Colón, a bowling ball of a human making the start for Texas, his 11th team in 21 major league seasons, and who posted a 6.48 ERA last year. The Astros have defending AL MVP José Altuve, an Alex Rodriguez clone in Carlos Correa and George Springer, who hit 34 home runs last year. Colón has a fastball that chugs along at 89 mph. That's not a combination on paper that would seem to work out in the veteran's favor.
And yet! There was Colón, slicing and dicing the Astros through seven perfect innings, just six outs separating him from what would've arguably been the greatest pitching feat in MLB history. Facing one of the most juggernaut offenses the game has ever seen, Colón set his first 21 batters down in order using that diesel-powered fastball and virtually nothing else, until a walk by Correa to open the eighth ended his chase of history and a double by Josh Reddick right after closed the book on the subsequent short-lived no-hit bid. He and his bullpen escaped that jam, though, to give him this final line: 7 2/3 innings pitched, one hit, one run, one walk, and seven strikeouts in an eventual 3–1 Rangers win against the defending world champions.
Had Colón gone out and finished the thing, it's hard to overstate just how unexpected it would've been. For starters, he would've become the oldest man in major league history to throw either a perfect game (topping Randy Johnson, who did it at age 40 in 2004, by nearly four years) or a no-hitter (beating out Nolan Ryan, who notched his seventh and final career no-no at 44 in 1991, by 235 days). He would've done it against a group of players who torched the league last year for just under 900 runs, 238 homers, and a collective 127 OPS+, or what the 1927 Yankees hit as a team. He would've done it a year after being so bad with Atlanta (an 8.14 ERA in 63 innings) that he was released in the middle of the season, then joined the Twins, with whom he was barely any better (a 5.18 ERA in 80 frames).
Colón signed a minor league deal with Texas right before spring training and was supposed to join the bullpen, but instead he's making starts because the Rangers' rotation is a total injury-disrupted mess; his turn on Sunday came only because scheduled starter Doug Fister is on the disabled list with a hip injury. It's a miracle that he's still in the majors, much less facing down lineups full of hitters who were in diapers when he made his big league debut. He's older than six current MLB managers.
But here's the most brain-melting fact of the evening: Of Colón's 96 pitches, 83 were fastballs. That's 86% of his offerings—nearly nine out of every 10—humming in at around 90–91 mph against a lineup that beat Clayton Kershaw, baseball's closest analogue to God, to within an inch of his life in the World Series. No team last year was better at hitting fastballs than the Astros, who posted a .299 batting average and a .518 slugging percentage on all such pitches in 2017, and yet there was Colón, perfectly placing 88-mph sinkers on the corners and getting tons of weak contact from the best offense in baseball, bar none. There are magic tricks, and then there's Colón's Houdini impersonation on Sunday—an artist trying to pull off his most death-defying act yet.
Yet that's been Colón's modus operandi since pretty much forever, a game plan he's stuck to since re-emerging from the wilderness seven years ago with the Yankees featuring a chemically rebuilt shoulder, that 88-mph fastball, and an impressive ability to spot his pitches exactly where he wants them. Sometimes it works, and more often than not it's a high-wire routine, but it's kept Colón in the game way past his expiration date. Here he stands at 44 years old and weighing as much as two or three Altuves, still firing away for yet another team and looking practically bored with his success the entire time.
When Atlanta cut ties with Colón last year, it looked like the end of his long and winding road. I wrote as much, bidding a fond farewell to one of the game's odder and more fun players—a living bit of arcana who defied age and expectations by pitching like a 23-year-old fireballer trapped in a shrunken version of Andre the Giant. As it turns out, those goodbyes were premature: Colón did not retire, and given how well he's pitched for Texas—Sunday's start lowered his ERA to 1.45 in 18 2/3 innings to go along with 17 strikeouts—there's no real reason to expect him to hang it up any time soon.
Then again, this ride could come to a sudden and violent stop at any time; see his 2017 results, when Colón, fresh off an All-Star season with the Mets, was completely awful for two different teams and looked like his magic had run out. He could spend the next month getting bombed by lineups not even a third as good as Houston's, or get consigned back to the bullpen to be a stout long reliever, appearing only sporadically in the most dire of situations. As is the case when Colón gets on the mound, there's no telling what could happen. So appreciate what we have before it's gone. Had Bartolo Colón finished his perfect game last year, it would've been one of the wildest, weirdest and most downright fun moments of the last decade of baseball. It also would've been completely out of nowhere—a perfect fit for the man himself.