Mussina’s Near-Perfect Game

Originally posted on
Give the devil his due: if there’s one thing we’ve seen this Yankees team do over the past 5 years, it’s put away an opponent on the ropes . . .
On Sunday, Mike Mussina nearly became only the fifth pitcher in major league history to throw a 9-inning, complete game perfect game — on the road. When you consider how many games have been played in the history of the game, 4 perfect games by the visiting starting pitcher is just a shockingly low number. On the high wire of finishing off a perfect game, maybe that friendly crowd really does make a difference . . . Carl Everett also robbed Paul O’Neill of the opportunity to play right field behind an unprecedented four perfect games. Mussina’s near-perfect game, sowing salt on the ashes of what used to be the AL East race, brings to mind a question: how many perfect games have been thrown in pennant races?

The Baseball Almanac lists all the perfect games:
*15 regulation, nine-inning perfect games – 6 in the NL (in 126 years), 8 in the AL, and 1 (by David Cone against the Expos) in interleague play.
*1 postseason perfect game.
*2 nine-inning perfect games broken up in extra innings (Pedro’s effort with the Expos and the Harvey Haddix game).
*4 complete perfect games of less than nine innings; presumably, these were called for rain or darkness.
Major league baseball has seen perfection in one form or another just 22 times in 126 seasons. It’s not as easy as a teenager whomping on Little Leaguers.
Of the perfect games, 6 were thrown in September or October:
*Don Larsen’s perfect game, which gave Larsen a 1-1 postseason record to go with a career record that then stood at 30-40, was a 2-0 victory to give the Yankees a 3-2 Series lead over the Dodgers. Interestingly, Jackie Robinson, who had hit just .275 with 10 homers in 1956 and would retire after the season, batted cleanup in that game (not that the batting order wound up mattering).
*Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game against the lowly Cubs on September 9, 1965 on the way to winning the pennant by just 2 games (the Dodgers’ lead was just a half a game entering September). Not only was this in an airtight pennant race, but the Dodgers scored an unearned run in the fifth inning for their only run, and had just one hit and one walk the entire game.
*Tom Browning threw one in September 1988, in a year the Reds finished 7 back of the Dodgers team he beat that day (they were 9 back entering September), so that was about as much in a pennant race as Mussina’s game. This was also a 1-0 game, with just 3 hits for the Reds, all after the fifth inning.
*Mike Witt threw one the last day of September in a season when the Angels finished 3 games out in a second-place tie; as I recall, they’d just been eliminated when Witt tossed his masterpiece. This, too, was a 1-0 game won on an unearned run.
*Rube Vickers’ 5-inning perfecto in the second game of an October 1907 doubleheader against a dreadful Senators team was the season’s last game, but his team finished just 1 game back in the loss column, so in many ways the situation was the same as Witt’s (the A’s were eliminated the day before, having been beaten by Washington rookie Walter Johnson in an extra inning duel with Eddie Plank.). There are some strange notes with this game: Vickers had thrown 12 innings of relief to win the first game of the doubleheader, and those were his first two major league victories. Unsurprisingly, this earned him a spot in the rotation for the following year.
*The most critical game, other than Larsen’s, was thrown by Addie Joss on October 2, 1908, a game that stands with Larsen’s, with Jack Morris’ performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, and with Babe Ruth’s 14-inning victory in Game Two of the 1916 World Series, among others, as one of the best big-game pitching performances ever. Joss was facing 40-game winner Ed Walsh (the two men finished first and second on the career ERA list, albeit due to having short careers in the pit of the dead ball era, and both were at the peak of their powers in 1908), and beat him 1-0, in a race the Indians lost the next day by half a game (and the White Sox finished just 1 game out). Walsh, the big spitballer, struck out 15, which if memory serves was the AL record at the time.
A few other semi-random thoughts:
*This season’s rookie crop is really something, although history teaches that great rookie classes don’t always yield the best players, long-term (the vaunted 1986 crop had more than its share of duds, but whose list that year even made room for the .223-hitting Barry Bonds?). Should Ichiro be eligible for the Rookie of the Year Award, formally known as the Jackie Robinson Award, after the first man to win it, a 28-year-old veteran? The question answers itself. But who will be the best player to come of this group? I haven’t seen Adam Dunn play yet, but my money is on Roy Oswalt.
*Russ Branyan has struck out 116 times this year — in 279 at bats. I believe that Dave Nicholson had held the prior record for fewest at bats in a season while striking out 100 times, just 294 at bats to whiff 126 times in 1964.
*Ichiro will probably get just enough rest in the season’s last month to fall short of Willie Wilson’s at bats record; he’s currently just even with the pace.
*All those graphics you see showing Bonds ahead of McGwire at the same point . . . they ignore how hot McGwire got at the end. Like catching Henry Aaron’s career record, you have to be ahead of the pace to outrun that powerful finishing kick.
*Only 2 weeks ago, I defended Dan Duquette. But failure to communicate with the players is one thing; actively aggravating the team’s superstars is another. When they asked Joe McCarthy how he got along with Ted Williams, he replied that if the manager doesn’t get along with the .400 hitter, who’s the team going to get rid of? McCarthy was a wise man. The Duke has made some great moves in Boston and some terrible ones, and the overall record is not a bad one at all considering the state of the franchise he inherited, but there comes a time when new management is needed to start the housecleaning that needs to go on among the team’s second-tier players.
*Tony Batista has the major leagues’ lowest on base percentage among all major league players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title; in fact, at .268, he’s more than 20 points below the nearest competition. Yet, unlike many other players with dreadful K/BB ratios, Batista sees more than 4 pitches per plate appearance, among the highest in the majors. Even granting that some of that is foul balls, that’s a bad sign — it’s one thing to take an impatient man and teach him patience. It’s entirely another to teach a man good judgment — which pitches to swing at — or the ability to make contact. Batista was a good gamble for the desperate Orioles, given his power, age, salary and ability to play multiple positions, but unless there’s something we’re missing here (bad eyes?), Batista may just lack the ability to tell the difference between good pitches and bad pitches. If so, his days as a regular may already be done.
*On this “Curse” business . . . don’t forget that the Red Sox were not the only, or even the first, team to sell Babe Ruth. In 1914, pressed by declining ticket sales caused by the opening of a Federal League team accross town, Jack Dunn — owner of the Baltimore Orioles of the then-independent International League, and the man who discovered Ruth in a home for wayward boys — had to sell Ruth to the Red Sox to stay in business. Dunn’s team had some hard times immediately thereafter, but between 1919 and 1925 they ran off 7 straight pennants, winning 100 or more games every year, and 3 postseason championships. It was one of the greatest runs in the history of American professional baseball. No Babe? Dunn came up with Lefty Grove. Some Curse.
*How conservative have major league baserunners become? Roger Cedeno and Luis Castillo share the major league lead in caught stealing — with 15 apiece.
*The talk among Mets fans this month is of 1973, when the Mets went from last place at the end of August to within a game of the World Championship. Stoking this has been a rare combination of aggressive play and bizarre luck, like the recent game where (1) Tsuyoshi Shinjo scored from first base on an infield groundout and (2) Todd Zeile scored the winning run from second on a botched routine toss back to the pitcher. I wrote off the Mets as far back as June, but in some ways this is the fun part: watching a team try to scale the mountain. There’s only so disappointed you can get if they fail. And Bobby Valentine is a big part of it. I’m not a huge fan of overmanaging in general or Valentine’s style in particular, but you’ve got a veteran team that’s been miles from contention all year, and Valentine is pulling out all the stops, running through relief pitchers like there’s no tomorrow, battling the umps, sending in the pinch runners and calling the trick baserunning plays . . . even from the cheap seats you can feel the sense of urgency coveyed by Valentine — we need this run! this inning! this out! — and that has to rub off on the guys in the dugout, watching it up close.