Nearly one year ago, on the same mound to which he’ll stroll tonight in the bottom of the first inning, Philip Humber reached the pinnacle of his profession. An obscure journeyman until that day, and a struggling pitcher afterward, he retired all 27 Mariners batters on April 21 at Safeco Field to become, at the time, just the 21st pitcher in MLB history to throw a perfect game. Two more names have since been added to the list, Matt Cain and, on this same field four months later, Felix Hernandez (who incidentally turns 27 today). Yu Darvish last week came within one out of joining the group.
Despite the relative proliferation of recent perfectos, it remains a singular event that marks a pitcher for perpetuity as having accomplished the ultimate level of success. And Humber is in the Dallas Braden/Don Larsen wing of the perfect-game museum — pitchers with pedestrian careers who rose up for that one, shining moment.
It’s amazing to look at what has happened to Humber since his perfect game ended with Brendan Ryan arguing his third strike, rather than taking off for first base when the ball got away from catcher A.J. Pierzynski. The toast of baseball for a few days, complete with the requisite David Letterman Top 10-list reading honors, he gave up nine runs in five innings against Boston in his next start. It didn’t get much better. A sore elbow in June landed him on the disabled list. In 14 starts after the perfect game, Humber put up a 7.21 ERA. When the White Sox landed Francisco Liriano at the trade deadline, Humber lost his starting job. And in September, when the White Sox were fighting for a playoff berth, he was virtually a forgotten man, appearing just twice in relief all month.
In November, the White Sox were ready to non-tender Humber. Before they could, the Astros claimed him on waivers, so he joined his fifth organization since being the No. 3 overall pick of the Mets in the 2004 draft. And now Humber has cracked the Astros rotation, having pitched well — one run in 5 2/3 innings in a no-decision against Texas– in his first start.
Which brings Philip Humber back to the Safeco Field mound tonight, just a 30-year-old pitcher trying to hang on to his career. But he’ll always have April 21, 2012.