In the past week some of the most vivid and treasured baseball memories I will ever experience have unfolded before my eyes at ATT&T Park. That is saying something, considering the Giants have not played a game with meaningful playoff implications since early summer.
But I have seen a drought end that started in 1951, and the drama of perfection.
Baseball has such a long history that it can awaken nostalgia at any time. Last Friday night, the Giants played the Diamondbacks, who are still mathematically alive for the wildcard. But the only math the Giants organization seems to be doing these days is figuring out how they can somehow still announce, “This is the 240th consecutive sellout at ATT&T park”–while there are entire upper deck sections vacant. What is the statistical possibility of an entire section not showing up?
Innings went by quickly in this game, with Giants pitcher Yusmeiro Petit working efficiently. He ended up going to a three ball count only twice the entire game. Petit’s career had thus far not been spectacular. He had come into this game with a career record of just 12-20, and the Giants had called him up from the minors on July 23. But since then, he has looked great, with a record of 2-0 coming into Friday’s game. Even though Petit pitched his first major league game eight years ago, he is still only 28 years old. Petit’s story makes him a pitcher worth rooting for– a player facing perhaps his final shot, hoping to do enough to stay in the big leagues next year.
Little did anyone know on this night that he was pitching a game that could echo through baseball eternity.
In the first inning, Joaquin Arias made a breathtaking play at shortstop, going to his knees to handle a scorching drive to his right, then getting up and throwing a bullet to first. This was the first time of the night that ooh’s and ahh’s could be heard throughout the stadium. But thoughts of a no hitter do not start in the 1st inning.
Those thoughts started in earnest when the Rockies were retired in the sixth inning, and a dropping line drive that looked like a single was hit to left field, where Brett Pill had been playing. But instead of seeing the 6’4” converted first baseman Pill lumbering to the ball, the crowd saw fleet-of-foot Juan Perez flying into the picture from nowhere and diving to make the catch. Manager Bruce Bochy had inserted Perez in left field that half inning for exactly that purpose: to take away a ball that had single written all over it. Sixth inning defensive replacements are rare, and it shows that Bochy felt Petit had a real shot at history.
After that catch, the ballpark turned into a nonstop party. But it was a different kind of party than what a big game for first place feels like, or even a playoff victory. This game had more of a carefree spirit spread throughout the stadium. It felt like getting to watch an artist like Monet paint a masterpiece in person. Everyone was sharing the idea that perfection might be taking place right before our eyes with each pitch. Because this was more than a no hitter.
A perfect game has no base runners at all and is a very rare thing. Some call it the most rare single game feat for a pitcher. In the history of baseball dating back to 1878, with over 300,000 total games having been played, there have only been 23 perfect games in history.
Flash forward to the ninth inning. Petit seemed to be effortlessly motoring through the Diamondback hitter and the crowd was going into a frenzy. A strikeout and a grounder to second brought veteran Eric Chavez to the plate as a pinch hitter. The umpire called a few close pitches balls. The count went to 2-2, and Petit threw a pitch that pounded the lower part of the strike zone and dropped. It was an almost impossible pitch to take, but Chavez took it and it was called a ball.
Calling this a ball did create controversy. There is the school of thought that with 2 strikes a hitter should swing at something very close to avoid being called out looking. It takes either courage and conviction or just to be completely fooled to lay off a pitch that is either a strike or inches away. But the umpire sided with Chavez.
The count was then 3-2, with everything coming down to one pitch. If Petit decided to nibble and throw a ball, he would lose his perfect game, but he would still have his no-hitter intact for the next batter. While admittedly, a no- hitter is not a perfect game, it would still have immortalized Petit.
However, Petit and his 6’1”, 250 pound frame went right after Chavez, putting everything on the line in pursuit of the perfect game with a challenge pitch right down the middle. Isn’t that the way it should be? It seems poetic, just going for greatness in a single defined moment. Chavez lined a single to right field that diving Hunter Pence missed by a foot. Petit then retired the next batter and raised his hand in celebration. The game turned into a one-hit shut out.
How did Eric Chavez manage to take that crucial pitch? In an interview with The Weekly Shot, Chavez (pictured in the middle above) was asked how he managed to lay off such a close pitch that was breaking so quickly. Before the question could even be finished, Chavez jumped in, “I saw that pitch from the beginning. It was a ball no doubt. I saw it bro.”
You have to respect his confidence, and it also took an umpire with a lot of conviction to call that a ball in this situation. Umpire’s have been known to get caught up in the moment like this. There are claims that Jonathan Sanchez’s no hitter in 2009 ended on a bad called third strike call.
But Chavez’s confidence in how clearly he saw that pitch brings a fitting end to this story. Petit had incredible stuff that night, and Chavez appears to have experienced a moment when he was able to lock onto a pitch from the moment it left the pitcher’s hand and measure a nasty breaking ball down to an inch. As if that at bat was baseball being played at the highest and most dramatic level possible.
But I must admit, seeing Chavez felt like walking into one of those ‘ESPN Classic’ documentaries. I do wish he was talking about why he couldn’t lay off that 2-2 pitch.
But oh, about that 1951 streak ending. I saw Petit pitch again on Wednesday, and amazingly he brought a perfect game into the 4th inning. Everybody in the stadium took notice, and I have never seen such anticipation of a no hitter that early in a game. But how casually and suddenly he lost it in that 4rth inning shows how difficult a perfect game is.
Later in the game, out of the blue, Hector Sanchez hit a foul ball that kept getting closer and closer, and my dad got it! I have never seen my dad more happy than this. Even minutes after the play, he was still smiling uncontrollably and looking at the ball and talking about waiting 73 years for this moment. He said that the first time he got close was at the age of 11 in 1951 at Seals Stadium, and he’s dreamed of getting a foul ball ever since. About 5 guys around us high fived him and it was a moment of pure joy.
While these games over the past week may have no playoff meaning, I can’t imagine them being any more memorable. Petit has created a legend for himself in San Francisco, and a typical foul made a week that has almost been perfect, become perfect.