Around the Horn

Nearly Perfect

I wasn't supposed to be at tonight's Mariners-Angels game. In my season ticket group's draft, this game went to another guy, Grant. But Grant decided to head to Cooperstown to see Edgar Martínez get inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend, so he put tonight's tix up for grabs and I said, sure, I'll take ’em, even though it is the frickin' Angels AGAIN and not even a Marco Gonzales game.

Thus, I was there, in my regular seats, as Mike Leake—who didn't even get through the first inning his last time out, against the Angels, in a game that the M's were no-hit—began crafting his revenge.

 Things were a little strange from the get-go, as both the giant diamondvision scoreboard in center field and the out-of-town scoreboard in left weren't working. Attending a Major League game without the big board and all the data it generally provided was different, as was the lack of what Erik might call gimcrackery: all the between-inning distractions it's now assumed are necessary to keep the attention of a modern crowd. I found I prefer it with the boards dark. Yeah, the info is nice to see, but I keep a scorebook, so I had all I needed at my fingertips anyway. Plus, Tom Hutyler was off tonight, so the public address duties were handled competently enough to make us aware of all the requisite lineup and pitching changes even without the scoreboard. It was refreshing.

Mike Leake was also, apparently, refreshed. Probably not because of the lack of scoreboard antics, but who knows? Maybe because it's July, and trade talks are flowing and Leake's name is getting thrown about and he wants to audition for potential suitors. Whatever the reason, he was on fire—in that chill, relaxed, not at all fiery Mike Leake sort of way.

First inning: Seven pitches. OK, I thought. Leake got his monthlies out of the way last time out, so he's gonna be decent again for a few starts. Looking good.

Second inning: Nine pitches. Wow, I thought. Leake is really on tonight. His control is excellent. Even the pitches getting called as balls looked right on the edge of the zone.

Third inning: Ten pitches. Took more work because one guy didn't make any fair contact and went down with a K. It looked like Leake might have been getting squeezed by the umpire, too, but no sweat for No. 8. (Looking at pitch tracking after the fact on, it seems I was right, Leake was getting squeezed—of six balls called in the first three innings, only one was actually out of the strike zone.)


Fourth inning: Eleven pitches. Two strikeouts this time. Three pitches called balls, all seemingly right on the black ( shows two on the black and one at the low border over the plate). Leake was cruising, easy as can be; if only this crap excuse for a lineup could get him a run or three.

Bottom of the fourth: This crap excuse for a lineup scored five runs—walk, walk, homer, single, double, single. The offense came alive for the first time since before the All-Star break.

Now that there was a lead in hand, and a decent one at that, all focus could go to the potential history being made by Mr. Leake instead of pondering the possibility that manager Scott Servais might decide to relieve Leake in the eighth or something because the Angles maybe get a runner on and it's still 0-0 and by golly we need to play the percentages with whatever scrap-heap left-hander we have in the bullpen today and what's that, my starter has a no-hitter going? Really? You don't say. Oh well, to the 'pen we go!

 But at this point, Leake had set down every Angel batter. 12 up, 12 down. Could he get to 27 and perfection? Mike Leake?

First off, Philip Humber once pitched a perfect game. So any shlub can have his day in the sun, as it were, if everything aligns and the fates are with him, even if he's, you know, Philip Humber. But Mike Leake isn't as meh as people think he is—Leake is solid, four starts out of five, anyway, more or less, and has thrown a lot of very good Major League baseball games in his career. He's underestimated because of his regular pattern of getting hammered once a month or so, but it's once a month or so. So, yeah, Mike Leake can do it! Go, Mike, go!

Fifth inning: Ten pitches. Including a strikeout of Andrelton Simmons, who has K'd fewer times (now 23) than any player in the league with more than 145 plate appearances. Two pitches out of the strike zone. Control is apparently pinpoint. I refrain from saying anything out loud due to ridiculous baseball superstitions.

Sixth inning: After Daniel Vogelbach has hit his second three-run homer of the night to pad the Mariner lead to 8-0, Servias makes a dangerous substitution, diminishing his defense's capabilities by taking Mallex Smith out for extra rest and putting Dylan Moore into the outfield. The outfield now has Moore, an infielder, in left; Kristopher Negrón, a utility player, in center; and Domingo Santana, an error machine, in right. It's as if Servias doesn't realize Leake is throwing a perfect game. Or, maybe he just likes tempting fate. No matter to No. 8, though. Leake retires batters 16, 17, and 18 on a comebacker, a liner to Negrón, and a short fly ball that Moore had plenty of time to get to. Eight pitches. Unflappable. Cruising. Calm.

Seventh inning: The M's having tacked on two more in the bottom of the sixth to make it 10-0 on a blistering double from J.P. Crawford, Leake has his most taxing inning yet: twelve pitches. Six are called balls, but they all appear close and later verifies them all on the black. Mike Trout connects for a hard-hit drive, but it goes right into a waiting Crawford's glove. 21 up, 21 down. A fan walks in front of my row and says to his buddy in the next section, "Hey, did you know Leake is pitching a perfect game?" SHUT UP, IDIOT. DO YOU KNOW NOTHING OF BASEBALL SUPERSTITIONS?

Eighth inning: Leake is back to efficiency with nine pitches. Two balls. Both on the black. A scary moment when the leadoff man flies to medium-deep right field and Santana sticks his hands out at his sides as if to say, "I don't know where the ball is." Negrón rushes over, but is too far away; luckily, Santana finds the ball just in time to make the catch to retire batter 22. 23 grounds out to Leake, who makes the tag himself—no sense trusting this defense. Batter 24 grounds easily to Kyle Seager at third. 24 up, 24 down.

Even the usually-milquetoast crowd in the ballpark has become aware of the situation now, and—blessedly without prompting from the Pavlovian scorebard!—is cheering every pitch from Leake. We can all taste it. Three outs to go, and he's still at only 76 pitches thrown. He's not close to tired. We're going to see a perfect game!!!

Ninth inning: 22-year-old rookie infielder Luis Rengifo leads off and fouls off Leake's first offering. The crowd cheers! The next pitch cuts inside for a ball. Close, maybe on the black ( shows it legitimately inside). Crowd boos the umpire. Tension is high for everyone except, it seems, Mike Leake. But then . . . Rengifo grounds the next pitch hard to the right side, between Dee Gordon and Austin Nola and into right field. Perfect game no more. After 24 straight, a guy few outside of Orange County have ever heard of breaks it up with a seeing-eye single. There is disappointment in the stands, cries of "Noooo!!" and "Awww!!" that are followed in short order by applause and a standing ovation for Leake's eight perfect innings. Meanwhile, Kevan Smith is batting and Leake does a very un-Mike Leake thing and walks  him on four straight. I was taken aback by this, wondering if perhaps there had been some sort of catcher's interference or something, because I had written in my scorebook a count of 2-and-2 (remember, main scoreboard is off), but no, it really was ball four. Checking later, it shows three of the four on the strike zone border. I think, really, home-plate umpire? You want to rattle our guy into losing the shutout too? But Mike Leake will not be rattled. Mike Leake will not be provoked, goaded, or piqued. Batter 27 grounds harmlessly to Gordon, who takes the sure out at first. Batter 28 pops up, a "that's no moon" kind of high shot that lands harmlessly in Gordon's glove. Then batter 29 steps in and it's the Fishman. Mike Trout, who though 0-for-3 has three lineouts, two of which were hit with authority. Tension returns, but it's the tension of jaded cynicism. "Frak me, Trout's going to go deep and ruin this awesome game for Leake." That's the mood. Leake proceeds to throw more pitches to Trout in this one at-bat than he threw in the entire first inning, running the count full—undeservedly, as shows he was again squeezed by the ump with "ball one" well in the strike zone and ball two on the black—plus two extra fouls before getting the Fishman to swing and miss a pitch that breaks into the middle of the zone to end the game.

In the words of Don Adams' Maxwell Smart, "Missed it by that much." It was possibly the greatest pitching performance I have ever witnessed in person. I know several people who have seen no-hitters—I know one guy that even saw Humber's plus Felix Hernandez's in the same season, for cryin' out loud—but I have yet to see one. I was away for Chris Bosio's no-no. Randy Johnson's first was before my time in Seattle. I just didn't get tickets to the others. I was there when Johnson struck out 18 Oakland A's (and lost), and I was there when James Paxton struck out 16 Oakland A's (and lost). I saw Marco Gonzales' first career shutout and Roenis Elías blank the Tigers and Mike Montgomery shut out the Royals with 10 Ks. All were incredible efforts and memorable games, but this one might be the best yet.

Kudos, Mike Leake. If you do get traded, I will miss you and your predictable monthly meltdowns surrounded by solid big-league performances. If you don't get traded, I know it won't be for lack of trying by Jerry Dipoto, but I'll be glad anyway, because Mike Leake may not be the flashiest pitcher around, but he's a valuable part of any pitching rotation he's in and, as we saw tonight, occasionally brilliant.


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