9:32 PM CDT, April 21, 2012
That pitch that got away from A.J. Pierzynski to end Phil Humber's perfect game Saturday? The same pitch that Michael Saunders and John Jaso couldn't lay off earlier in the ninth?
Those were sliders, wicked, wicked sliders.
"Hard, sharp and quick," said Don Cooper, the White Sox's pitching coach.
There's something you should know about that slider. It's a pitch the 29-year-old Humber wasn't throwing when he won a job in the Sox's starting rotation last spring. He relied on a cut fastball back then, and you wouldn't call it a weapon.
That's why Cooper suggested that Humber put away the very fashionable cut fastball — the pitch du jour in major league baseball — and go back to something more basic. Humber picked up a slider before he faced the Yankees late last April.
He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning that game, and then got into the sixth with a no-hitter two months later against the Nationals. But everything came together on Saturday, in his 30th big league start, and you can only wonder where that slider is going to take Humber from here.
"The cutter wasn't doing much, to be honest," Cooper said by phone from his Seattle hotel. "We changed it to a slider, and two days later he took it out against the Yankees. He threw 24 of them in that game, and they didn't know what hit 'em. They had no scouting report, no video …
"Here's a funny thing about today. All of his pitches were good in the bullpen — except the slider."
Before the ninth inning, Humber barely had to sweat. And when he started to grasp the weight of the moment, when his fastballs were missing the strike zone, the year-old slider — and Brendan Ryan — bailed him out.
Ryan, who pinch hit for Munenori Kawasaki, had watched Humber retire 26 consecutive hitters before he stepped up to end the game. Good luck on that. But then again, Humber, too, knows something about waiting.
He's the No. 5 starter in Robin Ventura's rotation, and Ventura's preference to help the other four guys develop an early rhythm meant Humber didn't make his first start until April 16, in the White Sox's ninth game.
While Humber was available out of the bullpen early in the season, he wasn't needed. Starting pitching has been a strength for the Sox, with Jake Peavy flashing comeback player of the year stuff and Chris Sale making a smooth transition from the bullpen.
Humber, who was an unexpected All-Star a year ago, didn't seem to mind being reduced to an afterthought. The Texan understood he had to prove himself again after going 1-4 with a 5.01 ERA in his final 10 starts last season.
"That's another credit to him for staying ready physically and mentally," Cooper said. "Kudos to him. We couldn't let (waiting) affect our focus. He went out and did what he had to do."
When Humber took the no-hit bid into the seventh inning at New York on April 25 last season, he had pitched for more major league teams (four) than he had wins (three). Looking at him on Saturday, he seemed a lot more like the third overall pick — where the Mets took him in the 2004 draft — than someone who was twice lost on waivers after the 2010 season.
Cooper credits his bosses, Ken Williams and Rick Hahn, for spotting Humber's potential when he was working out of the Royals bullpen in 2010. But like a lot of guys before him, the relationship between Humber and Cooper has been symbiotic.
With two outs in the ninth, up came Ryan. He seemed to have a good eye at the plate.
Ryan took a high curve for ball one, then a slider for strike one. He swung through a curve to go to 1-2, putting Humber one strike away. But stubbornly he spit at a curveball and slider, which missed the strike zone to get the count full.
He fouled off a 93-mph fastball, then got caught between a swing and a take on a 3-2, outside slider. The pitch ticked off Pierzynski's mitt and rolled toward the screen. Ryan's instincts were not to run to first. Who knows what would have happened if he had run.
"I still think we would have had him, from my vantage point," Cooper said. "He wanted to stand around and talk about it, and the way it worked out was perfect.
"I just think this was supposed to happen. Phil deserves it."
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