x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Sheer perfection, and so unexpected

Mark Buehrle's career has been a largely successful one. Now in his ninth full season, he was a big part of the Sox World Series championship staff in 2005 and he threw a no-hitter just two years ago.

Hitting for the cycle is a rare baseball feat. No-hitters happen only occasionally. But perfect games - ones where not a single batter reaches first base, even courtesy of a walk, being hit by the ball or a fielder's error - now those are real rarities. There have been only 18 in baseball history, and just 16 in the so-called modern era. Some have been pitched by the game's immortals, like Cy Young and Sandy Koufax. Some have been by less likely candidates. One that falls into the latter category is the Chicago White Sox Mark Buehrle, who pitched his perfect game on Thursday at Cellular Field.

Buehrle's career has been a largely successful one. Now in his ninth full season, he was a big part of the Sox World Series championship staff in 2005 and he threw a no-hitter just two years ago. Perfect games, though, are much harder to come by, which makes the fact Buehrle threw one all the more remarkable. The somewhat portly lefty doesn't profile as a the dominant type. He works quickly on the mound, and his pitching looks somewhat ordinary.

There's nothing overpowering about his repertoire, nothing terribly deceptive about his delivery, nothing that would suggest he's capable of retiring 27 hitters in a row. In short, he shouldn't be as good as he is. "I have no idea how I do it," the modest Buehrle says of his success. "I really don't. My teammates ask me all the time, and I tell them, 'It's not always about speed'. My ball moves more than I thought it did, and I don't have to rely on a fastball, like a lot of other guys. And I try to never forget that pitching has a lot to do with luck."

Most times, even luck isn't enough to result in the rarest of baseball achievements. Indeed, the game once went 34 years without one, from 1922 to 1955, when Don Larsen pitched arguably the most famous "perfect" of all time - smack in the middle of the World Series. There was no hint on Thursday that the timing was right for another. The Tampa Bay Rays, Buehrle's opponents, are one of the best offensive teams in the American League and were on something of a roll. Also, Buehrle was working with catcher Ramon Castro for the first time, with regular starting catcher AJ Pierzynski getting an afternoon off following the previous night's game.

As the tension mounted, each out took on more significance. Finally, in the ninth, Buehrle's magical ride appeared to be over. Gabe Kapler hit a drive to deep centre. Centre fielder DeWayne Wise had been playing shallow, to take away the possibility of a bloop hit falling in front of him, and had a long way to go to catch up to the ball. Even when he reached the fence, running out of room, he still had to leap for the ball, which was heading over the wall. Displaying marvelous athleticism, Wise caught the ball in his outstretched glove, only to have it pop out as he came back down. Before hitting the ground, he managed to catch the ball again, this time with his bare hand as he fell.

But there were still two outs to go, and when Buehrle went to a three-and-one count on the next hitter, Michel Hernandez, it looked as if the first eight-and-a-third innings might have been for nothing. One more ball and perfection would be out of reach. But Buehrle threw a second strike, and then a third, to remove Hernandez, and closed the inning via a groundout to short for the third and final out.

"I don't know how to explain it," Buehrle said. "I never thought I'd throw a no-hitter. I never thought I'd throw a perfect game. That's why I've said never say never in this game, because crazy stuff can happen." smcadam@thenational.ae