A long way from perfect, Humber starts over

Almost a year after his historic performance, former White Sox pitcher embraces second chance with Astros

KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Philip Humber knows perfection eludes him, as it does everyone.

Humber has been starting his days in Florida by pulling out his Kindle, burying his head in his locker and reading "The Cure,'' by John S. Lynch. It's a novel exploring spirituality and theology. One review about it on goodreads.com says, "God's cures rarely come in the form we expect,'' and Humber continues to learn about the winding road to a blessed life.

For 2 hours, 21 minutes last April 21 in Seattle, Humber was perfect, at least in baseball terms. He retired all 27 Mariners hitters he faced, giving the White Sox a 4-0 victory and assuring that he'll always have a place in baseball history, if not the Sox rotation.

Humber is with the Astros now, baseball's worst team in 2012, and after pitching well this spring he has claimed a spot in the rotation. Manager Bo Porter said last week he'll start the third game of the season, so his focus has shifted from career survival to facing the Rangers.

There's going to be a time when he will treasure what happened on the day that his electrified slider met up with a lineup of free-swinging Mariners, but that day hasn't arrived. Humber was given relics from baseball's 21st perfect game, including his jersey and the pitcher's rubber from Safeco Field, and he's not going to lose them. But the focal point of his home in Tyler, Texas, is his infant son's bedroom, not a celebration of Humber's talent.

Humber says the perfect game souvenirs are under a bed in his guest bedroom, in a plastic storage bin, as if they were high school yearbooks or letters from a first love.

"It's not like I'm trying to avoid them, but we don't have a trophy case or anything like that,'' said Humber, who descends from a line of Texas preachers. "If we get a bigger house maybe I'll get one of those man caves and put all that stuff in there. I have a lot of old uniforms. I've played for a lot of different teams.''

The Astros will become his fifth team in the major leagues when they face the Rangers in Sunday night's opener. At 30, Humber is in a unique position in history, trying to re-establish himself while at the same time approaching the first anniversary of a perfect game.

Guys who throw perfect games — the dominators like Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain, Roy Halladay, Randy Johnson, Catfish Hunter and Jim Bunning — write their own tickets. Humber takes the ball and deals with losing the magic as quickly as he found it.

"To the moon and back'' is how he describes 2012.

It was the most bizarre of seasons, beginning with the perfect game, which ended in a very human, flawed way. A.J. Pierzynski chased down strike three against Brendan Ryan as Ryan argued with umpire Brian Runge, rather than running to first base. Both Pierzynski and Humber believe Ryan would have been beaten to the bag by Pierzynski's throw if he had broken when the pitch hit the dirt, although Humber admits, "It would have been a close play.''

No matter. Runge's call and Ryan's angry reaction seemed to signal Humber had reached a level where he finally would have some job security. Instead he became the first pitcher to be pulled from the starting rotation in the same season he threw a perfect game. He was sidelined for a month with a sore elbow in June and shifted to the bullpen when Francisco Liriano was acquired from the Twins at the trade deadline. His ERA was 5.90 and wound up even worse (6.44).

Humber was a forgotten man down the stretch in the playoff race, making two appearances in September — one in an 18-9 loss, another in a 9-2 win. Rather than trust what they were seeing from Humber's series of bullpen workouts, manager Robin Ventura and pitching coach Don Cooper looked to rookies for both critical starts and important outs from the bullpen.

Don't tell Humber he had a light workload. He describes the stretch run as a grind that left him drained when the season ended. He and Cooper kept trudging out to the bullpen for workouts two and three times a week, but he failed to regain command of his fastball or the trust of his coaching staff.

He could have been broken, but with a wife and child at home, along with the close family that supported him when he failed to stick with the Mets after being selected with the third pick overall in the 2004 draft — one pick after Justin Verlander went to the Tigers — he opted for merely disappointed and determined to do better if someone gave him another chance.

"I understood what was going on,'' Humber said. "… They were in a pennant race and had to run their horses out there. I wanted to be one of those horses, but I wasn't. I felt terrible, but I understood what they had to do. I can't blame anyone but myself. I have good feelings about the White Sox. They gave me an opportunity (to start) when no one else would. I'll always appreciate that. At the same time, as the season was ending, I knew it was ending for me there. I was eligible for arbitration and guys had gone past me.''

Humber says he didn't want to think about baseball when he got home to Texas, gladly jumping in as a full-time dad. Kristan, his wife, had delivered John Gregory on May 1, 10 days after the perfect game.

"When I got home, John was starting to be big enough to be really played with,'' Humber said. "That was a cool thing. That was a lot of fun for me. I hadn't had a lot of time for him, and now I had it.''

Humber was claimed on waivers by the Astros on Nov. 30, hours before the White Sox would have non-tendered him. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow says adding Humber was "a no-brainer,'' based on having followed him since he won the national championship game for Rice as well as the statistical analysis of sabermetrician Sig Mejdal, who projects Humber as being poised for a comeback.

One Astros staffer says the numbers don't suggest "he will turn into David Price'' but can be interpreted to show he was unlucky in pitching his way out of the White Sox rotation. The Astros expect a thin pitching staff headed by Bud Norris and White Sox discard Lucas Harrell to be pushed especially hard as they move to the American League West and wanted veterans who can deal with tough times.

CHICAGO