Sunday, May 30, 2010

ROY HALLADAY RETIRES -- 27 straight batters

If there were still any lingering doubts among Phillies fans about whether it was a good idea to give up all those prospects and spend all that money on Roy Halladay, it's a pretty safe bet that they've disappeared, at least for today. That's because in the middle of a slump as the team was struggling to hold on to its divisional lead, "Doc" gave Phillies fans one day of pure unadulterated joy, reserving himself a place in baseball by pitching a perfect game against the Florida Marlins.

If you're not already aware, that's pretty rare. You'll hear these statistics quite a bit, but that's because they're pretty remarkable: It was only the twentieth perfect game in the history of Major League Baseball, and only the sixth pitched with the added pressure of a 1-0 score. The fact that Dallas Braden threw one for the A's earlier this season makes only the second time and the first since 1880 that two have occurred in a season. And the Phillies' only other perfect game was thrown by current Hall of Famer and Kentucky senator Jim Bunning during the otherwise infamous year of 1964.

In a sense it was almost surprising that Halladay, one of baseball's best pitchers and a Major Leaguer for twelve years, had not yet notched a no-hitter into his belt (he came only an out away from a perfect game during only his second start back in 1998), given his remarkable consistency and propensity to be efficient and go deep into games. Needless to say, he looked amazing today, hitting all corners with great variety and accuracy. Although he ran several three-ball count, he was unafraid to get out of them by throwing his big curve for a strike. He notched an impressive eleven strike outs along the way and needed fewer exceptional plays in the field than other perfect game pitchers have, though Shane Victorino's fine backtracking catch in centre, a good grab by Chase Utley in the hole, and especially an excellent stop and throw by Juan Castro at third -- retiring pinch hitter Ronnie Paulino for the final out -- were indispensable help.

The game looked like a close pitchers' duel from the start, with Halladay facing the Marlins' excellent Josh Johnson. Johnson was excellent for his own part, and the Phillies scored their only run, all they would need when a misplayed ball in the outfield allowed Chase Utley to take three bases and drive home Wilson Valdez, who had singled.

As early as the fifth or six inning, this game began to feel like something special as Halladay breezed through one one-two-three inning after another, and the late innings began to take on some of the greatest tension possible in baseball as the developing perfect game rode on every hitter he faced. The Miami crowd of over 25,000 got into rooting for Halladay -- no surprise when a perfect game is in the works, but last night they seemed especially eager and early to do so. The mystery was explained when TV shots showed almost all fans wearing red with Ps on their hats in the Phillies' spring training home state.

Halladay stayed true to his humble, serious, and stoic personality, looking all business until after Paulino was retired, then hugging Carloz Ruiz and his teammates with a relieved grin after it was all over. In postgame interviews he gave as much credit to "Chooch" Ruiz as to himself, which was a fitting tribute to an excellent defensive catcher and game calling, and some admirable humility.

This game will be a lifetime good memory -- not only for those involved or at the stadium, but for those of us who had the still rare opportunity to watch it unfold live. For Phillies fans this first perfect game since 1964 -- and first no-hitter since Kevin Millwood highlighted Veterans' Stadium's farewell season by no-hitting the Giants in 2003 -- is another extraordinary highlight from an amazing past few years. For the team, this game could be a catalyst to an extraordinary season. But even if it isn't, it's still something to be savored even on its own.


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