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Victory in the ninth

Sports | After nearly a decade of setbacks, Philip Humber stopped worrying and pitched a perfect game

Issue: "The GOP and Hispanics," May 19, 2012

When Chicago White Sox pitcher Philip Humber joined Twitter this past offseason, Tim Tebow was the first person he followed. Humber twice tweeted at Tebow, then the Denver Broncos' quarterback, but never received a response.

Last month, though, Humber was at the center of the sports world. On April 21 in Seattle, the 29-year-old right-hander tossed the 21st perfect game in the history of baseball-and Tebow tweeted him. "I guess you've got to throw a perfect game to get a tweet from Tim Tebow," Humber laughed.

Humber, like Tebow an outspoken Christian, threw just 96 pitches-67 were strikes-to retire all 27 Mariners. He said early in the game his mind was only on securing a win, but after breezing through the middle innings on only 19 pitches, his thoughts shifted: "After about the sixth, seventh inning, I thought, 'Hey, God, if it's your will for this to happen, make it happen-just use me for your purpose.'"

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Humber's road to that moment was long and winding. He was the Texas state player of the year in high school and led the Rice Owls to the 2003 College World Series title. He was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2004 draft. Then came surgery on his elbow and six years of failure. Three major league teams gave up on him as Humber moved from prospect to suspect.

Last year the White Sox took a chance on him. In his first appearance, he threw only two pitches and both of them were hits. "Both runners scored," he said, "so I started the year with an infinite ERA." He cried out: "Why did you put me here, God? You just want to embarrass me some more?" But Humber's praying and questioning led him finally to the belief that "God has my best interest in heart because I'm a child of His." He started worrying less and pitching better.

After his mid-perfect-game prayer last month, Humber said his stuff got better in the seventh and eighth innings. Humber reached the ninth inning on only 80 pitches, and had not even gone to a three-ball count on any Mariner.

Starting the ninth, he immediately fell behind the leadoff hitter, Michael Saunders, with two four-seam fastballs. Humber knew he was overthrowing, so he stepped off the mound to gather himself. "Even after that, I threw ball three," he said. "None of those pitches was close."

Humber figured Saunders was unlikely to swing at a 3-0 pitch, so he threw a down-the-middle fastball. Strike one. Saunders then swung through a high fastball and struck out on a sharp slider. One out.

That's when Humber noticed the electricity at Safeco Field: "I could feel the crowd. I could feel their anticipation." The second Mariner batter hit a lazy fly ball. One out away: "The fans were going nuts. Even though we're on the road, you could tell the fans wanted to see it."

Pinch hitter Brendan Ryan strode to the plate and patiently worked the count to three balls and two strikes. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski called for a slider, and Humber agreed: Since he could not control that pitch as well as his fast ball, Ryan would probably be looking for the fastball and would have a greater chance of hitting it. Humber's thinking at the moment: If he couldn't have a perfect game, he wanted to at least preserve the no-hitter.

As soon as the ball left Humber's hand, his heart sank: "When I threw it, I thought, 'Well, that's ball four.'" He was right: The pitch was a foot outside and low-but Ryan, fooled, could not stop his swing. Strike three. The ball skipped away from Pierzynski, but he had time to retrieve it and throw to first to complete the strikeout. Humber dropped to his knees to thank God, then found himself on the bottom of a dogpile for the first time since he was the winning pitcher for the Rice Owls in the 2003 College World Series.

What was it like under there? "Not really any thoughts, I was just laughing," Humber told me. "The coolest part was watching the reaction of everybody else. Some of my teammates had tears in their eyes. They had just as much joy and excitement as I did."

During the first two days after the perfect game Humber received countless congratulatory texts and phone calls, including one from President Barack Obama.

Humber sat through dozens of interviews and even delivered the Top Ten on the Late Show with David Letterman, before cutting off interviews to prepare for his next start. Throughout the media blitz, Humber consistently gave credit to God for his success: "The cool thing about live interviews is they can't censor you. ... I get to say what's on my heart."


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