Baseball is kind of like "Star Wars." As Luke Skywalker said to Darth Vader during their first big light-saber battle: "You’ll find I'm full of surprises."
Philip Humber played the Luke Skywalker role on Monday, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the New York Yankees before Alex Rodriguez grounded a one-out single up the middle. It may be the season’s most unlikely no-hit bid as Humber -- a guy released twice in the offseason, first by the Royals and then by the A's -- shut down a team that entered the game scoring more runs per game than any club since the 1999 Cleveland Indians.
On the Yankees' postgame show, Suzyn Waldman reported that Derek Jeter said Humber didn’t throw a straight pitch all night. Yankees manager Joe Girardi raved about his changeup, saying his players were in front of his pitches all game. Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski said Humber just needs to believe in himself.
Humber had a bittersweet quote after the game, a quote that reminds me of the often overlooked cruel nature of baseball, of the fine line between success and failure, that line between having a career and making millions, or returning to your small hometown in Texas that once held a day in your honor, explaining to everyone why you never made it.
"When I was young I had big dreams. I thought I was going to go out there and dominate every time," Humber said. "It hasn't worked out that way to this point."
If that quote doesn’t make you root for Philip Humber, then you have a heart of coal.
Humber was part of the one greatest college pitching staffs ever assembled, the 2003 Rice team that also included Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend. Humber pitched the championship game of the 2003 College World Series, beating Stanford 14-2, and the following June all three were selected in the top eight picks of the draft, with Humber going No. 3 overall to the Mets.
All three pitchers had been worked heavily at Rice and -- coincidence or not -- suffered arm injuries in the pros. Niemann would have shoulder surgery; Townsend and Humber would both have Tommy John surgery. Townsend never made it to the majors. Humber made his first big league start for the Mets in late September of 2007, right as the Mets were reeling and blowing a big division lead to the Phillies. Humber pitched poorly and the Mets lost the game.
The Mets traded him to the Twins that offseason and he made 21 appearances the next three seasons, including one start with the Royals last year. It wasn’t enough to impress the Royals. They released him -- a team that lost 95 games and had a 4.97 ERA decided it had better options. The A’s picked him up but released him before spring training began. The White Sox gave him a chance.
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Like Humber, Jered Weaver was a first-round pick in that 2004 draft. After a dominating season at Long Beach State, many thought Weaver was the best talent in the draft, but his status as a Scott Boras client scared teams off and he slid to the 12th pick, selected by his hometown Angels.
He was in the majors by 2006, posting a 2.56 ERA as a rookie. He started playoff games the next three seasons. He’s making $7.3 million this year and when he becomes a free agent after the 2012 season, he’ll sign a lucrative deal that will make generations of Weavers very wealthy.
Weaver makes pitching look easy, with that slingshot delivery that seems absolutely effortless. He’s never suffered a major injury and he’s one of those guys who can throw strikes with his eyes closed. He’s California cool with the long hair and relaxed demeanor and he’s on a roll right now that we rarely see; with his 5-0 shutout over the A’s -- his sixth win of the month -- he became just the fourth pitcher since 1990 with six wins by his team’s 23rd game (joining Dave Stewart of the 1990 A’s, Bob Tewksbury of the 1994 Cardinals and Randy Johnson of the 2002 Diamondbacks).
Weaver may never have another month like this one, but he has plenty of great months in his future.
Philip Humber’s future is less clear. He’s in the White Sox rotation for now, but when Jake Peavy returns from the DL, Humber may lose his slot. He may never have a season like Jered Weaver, but for one night he dreamed of no-hitting the Yankees and dominating like he once imagined.
Big dreams. I don’t know if Philip Humber will ever have another day like this in the major leagues. I hope he does. I do know that he made Carthage, Texas, proud.
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