When Batter 27 Strikes

By coming within one out of a perfect game, Max Scherzer joins a dozen other names on the near-miss list

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One of the great things about baseball is this: It has been around so long that almost everything has precedent. For instance, when Max Scherzer lost his perfect game with two outs in the ninth when he hit Pittsburgh’s Jose Tabata, I was SURE that was the first time that had happened. It HAD to be the first time an 8 2/3 inning perfect game was broken up with a hit-by-pitch, right?

Actually, no. It wasn’t the first time. The same thing happened on Independence Day in 1908. That was a morning game involving a left-handed pitcher named Hooks Wiltse. Hooks was, according to the writer of the Newark Advocate, a “custodian of clever curves.” Hooks won 139 games in his Deadball Era big-league career.

Wiltse, like Scherzer, was perfect for 26 batters. Unlike Scherzer, however, Wiltse’s Giants were not leading the game. It was still 0-0 because Philadelphia’s George McQuillan was pitching a heck of a game on his own. This meant that the 27th batter of the game for the Phillies was George McQuillan himself.

Wiltse got two strikes on McQuillan and then, by just about all accounts, threw a pitch over the outside corner that should have been called strike three. One sportswriter would put it this way: “The third one, according to half a dozen men of cold, critical judgment, was as good a strike as ever whizzed over the corner of home plate. … Had it not been for the blindness or carelessness of a man named Rigler, who holds a position as umpire …”

Yes, Cy Rigler called it a ball. In later years, he would admit he made the wrong call — supposedly he once sent Hooks Wiltse a box of cigars as some sort of penance. With the next pitch, Wiltse hit McQuillan to end the perfect game.

Wiltse ended up throwing a 10-inning no-hitter but no-hitters were not all that rare in those days. One paper simply led its roundup with this: “New York defeated Philadelphia this morning in a ten inning contest by a score of 1 to 0. Wiltse was invincible and held the visitors without a hit.”

Had Wiltse thrown the perfect game, it would have been the first in the National League since 1880 and so would today be recognized as the first National League perfecto of the modern era.

Here, then, are the 13 almost perfect games, the ones lost with two outs in the ninth:

 

1. July 4, 1908: Hooks Wiltse loses perfecto when he hits opposing pitcher.

 

2. August 5, 1932: Detroit’s Tommy Bridges loses perfecto when Washington pinch-hitter Dave Harris knocks clean single to left.

Remember what I said about everything in baseball having a precedent? Well, this is especially true of “unwritten rules” in baseball. As stupid as today’s unwritten rule might seem, there was always one more stupid.

In the aftermath of the Scherzer near-perfecto, there’s been lot of talk about the sportsmanship of Pittsburgh’s Jose Tabata. Did he lean in and purposely get hit by the pitch? Did he try hard enough to get out of the way? Was it just an instant reaction? If he purposely got hit was that poor sportsmanship of just good hard baseball? Should the 27th batter in a potential perfect game be held up to higher ethical standards than the first 26? And so on.

Well get this: In 1932, Bridges had a perfect game going against Washington for 26 batters. The Tigers led 13-0 and Washington manager Walter Johnson sent up Harris for the pitcher and, as mentioned, he broke up the perfect game with a single. Clean, right?

No. In the aftermath, people griped that WALTER JOHNSON had displayed poor sportsmanship by sending up a pinch-hitter in the first place. “The crowd of 8,000 that had watched Bridges pitch a no-hit, no-walk, no-run game for eight and two thirds innings sat in tense silence, wondering at Johnson’s action when his team had no chance to win,” wrote the Associated Press. It was much discussed whether or not Johnson, long viewed as one of baseball’s great sportsman, had in fact done the wrong thing.

So, yeah, people kind of lose their minds a little bit when it comes to perfect games.

 

3. June 27, 1958: Chicago’s Billy Pierce gives up a double to Washington pinch hitter Ed Fitz Gerald.

In many ways, this was the first missed perfect game because, by 1958, the IDEA of a perfect game had taken flight. The first two were more like curiosities. Pierce’s near-miss was national news. He was trying to become the first lefty of the modern era to throw a perfect game.

He had been pitching brilliantly coming in — this was his third consecutive shutout — and he was untouchable for the first 8 2/3 innings. Then Fitz Gerald was sent up as a pinch hitter for pitcher Russ Kemmerer. Pierce’s catcher, Sherm Lollar, thought Fitz Gerald would be looking first-pitch fastball so he called for the curve, and he would say it was a sharp one. Fitz Gerald laced it down the right field line for a double, all while the Chicago crowd booed.

“I was sent up to pinch-hit, wasn’t I?” Fitz Gerald said when asked about the boos. “I went up there to hit. That’s my job.”

 

4. September 2, 1972: Chicago Cubs’ Milt Pappas walks San Diego pinch-hitter Larry Stahl on borderline pitch. Pappas finished with a no-hitter.

Here’s something I did not know about Milt Pappas’ very famous near-perfect game: In the moments after it happened, he was not visibly unhappy at all. Quite the opposite. This is weird because, as you probably know, Pappas has never forgiven umpire Bruce Froemming for the Larry Stahl walk. He is convinced — utterly convinced — that he threw three strikes in that at-bat that were called balls.

He has held on to his anger all these year. Even 30 years later, he was STILL looking for an apology. When Jim Joyce blew the final call in the Armando Galarraga near-perfecto, Pappas griped: “At least the umpire had the guts to say he was wrong.”

So I assumed that Pappas has ALWAYS felt that way. But that’s not true at all. His opinion has hardened over the years. In the moments after his game, he was just so thrilled about throwing a no-hitter that the perfect game was almost forgotten. “Those pitches to Stahl weren’t that far off,” he told reporters. “And I was hoping (Froemming) would sympathize with me and give me a call. But they were balls, no question about it.”

See that? “They were balls, no question about it.” Was Pappas simply being a good sport then? Maybe. But his catcher, Randy Hundley also thought the pitches were balls, though he did add: “They were so close I don’t see how (Stahl) could stand there and take them.”

It was Pappas’ teammate Ron Santo who, in the aftermath, seemed most unhappy by Froemming’s calls. He told Pappas that it was the first time he’d ever felt let down by a no hitter because it should have been a perfect game.

“I know, Ronnie,” Pappas said. “But I’ll take the no-hitter.”

 

5. April 15, 1983: Detroit’s Milt Wilcox gives up single to Chicago pinch-hitter Jerry Hairston.

What are the odds that two pitchers named Milt would lose perfect games with two outs in the ninth inning to pinch-hitters whose names rhyme with Gary?*

*A little Parks and Recreation reference there.

Wilcox handled his near-miss with the dignity and humor that marked his career. He was born in Hawaii, and he was a solid pitcher for many years, through injuries and quirks of all sorts. He was a close teammate of Mark Fidrych. He was the scheduled pitcher on Disco Demolition Night in Chicago. He insisted on making every start in the Tigers’ magical 1984 season (and he did, though it required SEVEN cortisone shots). He won 119 games in his career.

The near-perfect-game was a cold night in Chicago, and when Hairston came to the plate, he felt a significant burden. “Our pride was at stake because we’re considered the best-hitting team in the league,” Hairston said. He looked first-pitch fastball, got it, and he lined it up the middle for a single.

“I was disappointed, yes,” Wilcox told reporters. “If you pitch a perfect game, you go into the Hall of Fame. That’s the only way I’ll get there.”

 

6. May 2, 1988: Cincinnati’s Ron Robinson gives up a single to Montreal pinch hitter Wallace Johnson.

Do you know who the Reds’ manager was the day Ron Robinson came within a strike of a no-hitter? Your guess should be Pete Rose, but it was actually Tommy Helms replacing Rose, who was at home because of arthroscopic surgery on his knee. I don’t know how many managers have missed games because of in-season knee surgery, but that’s Pete. That was also the day Rose was suspended for thirty days for bumping and pushing umpire Dave Pallone, though he appealed. It’s easy to forget just how much trouble Pete could get into.

Robinson gave up a sinking line drive to Wallace Johnson and was so deflated he promptly gave up a home run to Tim Raines to lose the shutout. That was a pretty big deal — Robinson had never thrown a shutout. In fact, up to that point he’d only thrown one complete game in his career — a seven-hitter as a rookie.

 

7. August 4, 1989: Toronto’s Dave Stieb gives up a double to New York’s Roberto Kelly.

Stieb had enough near-misses in his career that in the Associated Press lead for this one, he was called “Baseball’s Heartbreak Hurler.” In September 1988, he lost back-to-back no-hitters with two outs in the ninth inning.

That was a crazy year, 1989: FIVE different pitchers had perfect games ruined in the ninth inning. But only Stieb lost it with two outs. He did it in front of what was then the largest crowd in Toronto baseball history, 48,789. It was probably the best game he ever pitched; he had no issues at all with the first 26 batters. In the ninth, he breezed through pinch-hitters Hal Morris and Ken Phelps. Then he fell behind 2-0 to Kelly and had to throw a strike. Kelly ripped the pitch into the left field gap.

“Good pitch,” Stieb determined afterward. “But he got around on it.”

Stieb’s career is often summed up by the word almost. He was ALMOST a Hall of Famer. He ALMOST won 20. He ALMOST won a Cy Young.

“If I haven’t gotten a no-hitter after three times,” he said with a sad smile on his face. “I doubt if I ever will.”

He did get his no-hitter the very next year.*

*Thank you to Brilliant Reader Matthew for pointing this out; I had forgotten that Stieb finally threw his no-hitter in 1990.

 

8. April 20, 1990: Seattle’s Brian Holman gives up a home run to Oakland’s Ken Phelps.

Here was the first time a near-perfect game was broken up with a home run … and it happened just as you might imagine. An extremely nervous Holman fully understood the history that was staring him in the face. He was 25 years old and had come to Seattle from Montreal as the second player in a trade for star Mark Langston. The first player in the trade was a gawky left-handed pitcher named, let’s see if I can spell this right: Randy Johnson.

So he was trying to make a name for himself, and he was beyond nervous. “I told myself, ‘This is the last man,’” he would explain to reporters. “I wanted to throw a fastball over the plate to get ahead of the count.”

Unfortunately, he was facing a one-time Seattle legend named Ken Phelps who knew EXACTLY what to do with nervous fastballs. Catcher Dave Valle knew Phelps’ tendencies as well as anyone and so he called for the ball up; Phelps never did like hitting pitches up in the strike zone. Holman threw it up in the zone. Phelps blasted it into the right-field bleachers anyway. “He hit the you-know-what out of it,” Holman said.

“What’s Digger doing hitting a high pitch?” Valle asked afterward.

Holman said it actually felt better to lose the perfect game that way rather than giving up a bloop single or something like that. He had challenged the hitters to the end. And Phelps got him.

“I don’t feel like a villain,” Phelps said. “I was glad I broke it up. I didn’t want that monkey on my back.”

 

9. September 2, 2001: New York’s Mike Mussina gives up a single to Boston pinch-hitter Carl Everett.

Mussina came within one strike of throwing the first perfect game ever at Fenway Park. He got Everett behind 0-2 and then gave up exactly what Brian Holman had feared — a bloop liner to left-center for a single. Mussina, like Stieb, had flirted with perfection before; it was the third time in his career he’d take a perfect game into at least the eighth inning.

I often wonder if it is small ripples in sports that, over time, make the difference in how things are remembered. For instance, I sometimes think that had Alan Trammell won the MVP award in 1987 (as he certainly deserved to do) his Hall of Fame case would have been taken much more seriously. I sometimes think that if Fred McGriff had hit just seven more home runs in his career — that would have given him 500 — he’d be in the Hall of Fame.

And I can’t help but wonder if Mussina would be getting more Hall of Fame consideration had he gotten Everett out to complete the perfecto. A perfect game alone is certainly not enough to make someone a Hall of Famer (though Don Larsen’s perfect game in the World Series got him a lot of Hall of Fame votes over the years). But added in with Mussina’s already superb Hall of Fame credentials … I just wonder if a perfect game might have altered the way Mussina is viewed. Mussina’s career, like Stieb’s, has this “almost” quality to it. He never won a Cy Young (but finished Top 5 six times). He never won a World Series. He never started in an All-Star Game. There’s just this vibe among many that Mussina was a good but not great pitcher — a vibe I strongly disagree with.

I wonder if throwing a perfect game at Fenway against the Boston Red Sox would have changed that vibe.

 

10. June 2, 2010: Detroit’s Armando Galarraga gives up a “single” to Cleveland’s Jason Donald on a missed call by Jim Joyce.

The Imperfect Game

 

11. April 2, 2013: Texas’ Yu Darvish gives up a ground ball single to Houston’s Marwin Gonzalez.

It does seem that a lot of these perfect games are broken up on the first pitch of an at-bat. In this case, Gonzalez hit the first pitch right between the legs of Darvish and through the middle for the hit.

Darvish wasn’t particularly upset … or, seemingly, upset at all. It was his first start of the year and, to be honest, he seemed kind of annoyed that he had to throw 110 pitches in his first start just for some silly perfect game. When asked what he thought after the hit, he said, “I can now go back to the dugout.”

And, indeed, he was immediately taken out of the game, the first near-perfecto pitcher to not face the next batter. Darvish said, “I think it meant more to my teammates than it did to me.”

Perfect games simply don’t mean the same thing in Japanese baseball as they do in America. I’ve written a lot about this before, but I was at the Japan Series in 2007 when Daisuke Yamai threw eight perfect innings against Trey Hillman’s Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. This was the clinching game —  it’s hard to even describe what American Twitter would be doing if pitcher had a perfect game going to clinch the World Series.

But in Japan, it meant so little that manager Hiromitsu Ochiai yanked his starter after eight and put in closer Hitoki Iwase, who did throw a perfect ninth to complete the combo-perfecto. There were a couple of questions to Hiromitsu about the move, but he simply said that he wanted to win the game, first and foremost, and this was widely accepted.

 

12. September 6, 2013: San Francisco’s Yusmeiro Petit gives up line drive single to Arizona’s Eric Chavez.

Petit got two strikes on Chavez. Then Chavez’s liner to right dropped a foot or two in front of diving right fielder Hunter Pence. As manager Bruce Bochy would say afterward, it just doesn’t get much closer than that. Pence would say that with the ball in the air, he felt like he was in one of those dreams where you are moving your feet as fast as you can but you’re just not going anywhere.

“I wasn’t trying to break his heart,” Chavez said. “I was trying to break it up.”

 

13. June 20, 2015: Washington’s Max Scherzer hits Pittsburgh’s Jose Tabata in the elbow with a pitch.

A Nationals fan asks: Did Max Scherzer just pitch the greatest back-to-back starts in baseball history?

Well, let’s look a little more closely. The general standard for back-to-back starts is Johnny Vander Meer’s consecutive no-hitters in 1938. Against the Boston Bees on June 11, he did not allow a hit, struck out four and walked three. Four days later, in the first night game ever at Ebbets Field, he struck out seven but walked eight in the second no-hitter.

That’s legendary, of course. But I think, realistically, you can’t make a serious argument for those being the best back-to-back games ever pitched. Not with 11 walks. He obviously pitched very well, but he also got a lot of good defense behind him, and the lights played a big role and so on. I think Scherzer’s back-to-back performance — 18 innings, one hit, 26 strikeouts, one walk — leaves Vander Meer behind.

So is there anyone else? Well, let’s go with Game Score, that fun Bill James invention that uses innings, strikeouts, walks, hits and runs to give a pitcher a score. A game score of 50 is average, a game score of 100 is otherworldly.

Since 1914, only two pitchers have had game scores of 95 or better in consecutive starts. The first was R.A. Dickey in 2012. Against Tampa Bay on June 13, Dickey allowed just one hit, one unearned run, he struck out 12 without walking a batter. That was a game score of 95. He was even better five days later against Baltimore, again allowing just one hit, along with two walks. He struck out 13 for a game score of 96.

You would have to say that Scherzer was even better than that. He threw a complete game against Milwaukee, allowed that one late hit, struck out 16 and walked just one. That was the magical 100 game score. Then, Saturday, when he came within an elbow of a perfect game, he did not allow a hit or a walk and he struck out 10.

Incredible. Let’s break it down: In baseball history there have only been 12 games where a pitcher has gone nine innings and put up a 100 Game Score. Here is how they followed those games:

Kerry Wood, 1998, 105 game score (1 hit, 20 Ks, 0 walks)
Next start: 75 game score (7 innings, 5 hits, 13 Ks,)

Clayton Kershaw, 2014, 102 game score (0 hits, 15 Ks, 0 walks)
Next start: 72 game score (8 innings, 6 hits, 8 Ks)

Matt Cain, 2012, 101 game score (0 hits, 14 Ks, 0 walks, PERFECT GAME)
Next start: 43 game score (5 innings, 3 runs)

Nolan Ryan, 1991, 101 game score (0 hits, 16 Ks, 2 walks)
Next start: 57 game score (6 innings, 3 runs)

Sandy Koufax, 1965, 101 game score (0 hits, 15 Ks, 0 walks, PERFECT GAME)
Next start: 59 game score (6 innings, 5 hits)

Brandon Morrow, 2010, 100 game score (1 hit, 17 Ks, 2 walks)
Next start: 45 game score (4 innings)

Randy Johnson, 2004, 100 game score (0 hits, 13 Ks, 0 walks, PERFECT GAME)
Next start: 65 game score (7 innings, 2 runs)

Curt Schilling, 2002, 100 game score (1 hit, 17 Ks, 2 walks)
Next start: 52 game score (7 innings, 3 runs)

Nolan Ryan, 1973, 100 game score (0 hits, 17 Ks, 4 walks)
Next start: 87 (10.1 innings, 3 hits, 2 runs, 13 Ks, 5 walks)

Nolan Ryan, 1972, 100 game score (1 hits, 16 Ks, 1 walk)
Next start: 45 game score (9 innings, 7 runs)

Max Scherzer, 2015, 100 game score (1 hit, 1 walk, 16 Ks)
Next start: 97 game score (9 innings, 0 hits, 0 walks, 10 Ks)

The only pitcher who was even reasonably close in his 100 game score follow up was Nolan Ryan’s 87 in 1973. But realistically, no one else can really match up. I do think Scherzer’s back-to-back starts are indeed the best in baseball history.