The Catch

Last month Mark Buehrle, a career .100 hitter, slugged his first career home run on a sunny Milwaukee afternoon. Buehrle seemed to get all his weight into the swing. He lunged at it awkwardly, in that classic flailing manner of American League pitchers in National League parks. His front foot did a Robb Nen double tap. His back foot didn’t quite pivot; rather it slid and almost came off the ground. But as Buehrle scooted head down, around the bases, his line drive soared into the Brewers’ bullpen. The homerun came on a full count fastball, high in the zone and over the middle of the plate. It was just the sort of bad pitch that Mark Buehrle didn’t throw in yesterday’s perfect game, and has rarely thrown in the course of his ten year career.

DeWayne Wise deserves the attention he has received. The catch he made had me shivering and I look forward to watching it replayed the rest of this season and for years on end. But to me, his catch was not the defining moment of Buehrle’s perfect game. The moment that summed it up for me, that really epitomized the performance came in the next at-bat. With one down in the ninth, Tampa Bay catcher Michael Hernandez stepped to the plate.

In a perfect game the pressure on the pitcher is ratcheted up with every out. With each retired batter he is one pitch closer to immortality; one pitch closer to reaching a symmetry so scarce that it can’t be achieved in real life and can only seldom be achieved in the artificial world of baseball. Five outs to go, four outs to go, three outs to go, two outs to go … Mark Buehrle has a regular guy reputation. He doesn’t go for superstition and he is extremely self-aware. By the time he took the mound in the ninth, one has to imagine that his heart was lodged somewhere between his throat and his sinuses.

And after that catch, that space and time and gravity defying catch, everything was turned up a level higher. After that prayer was answered, failure to finish the last two Rays would have been more than just a disappointment, more than just a notable almost. It would have been a poetic let down for Buehrle, his teammates, and all of us who took the time in our day to watch or listen or follow online; for all of us who had attached our own emotions, our own hopes and dreams to that momentary brilliance. He might not have been thinking it explicitly but Mark Buehrle knew all this. At some level, after The Catch, he probably thought to himself, Oh shit, well now I really can’t screw this up.” Watch the replay. You can almost see it in the way he sighs and wipes his brow right afterward

Into the batters’ box, into the concoction of nerves and history and excitement steps Michael Hernandez. If you’re a pitcher and have to face one Ray in this situation, you probably pick Hernandez. He steps up to bat with an on base percentage below .300 and a reputation for nothing really. He’s a backup catcher, after all. Buehrle doesn’t hesitate. He works as quickly as any pitcher in the game and he interrupts the hometown broadcast crew in its post-catch hyperbole with a quick first pitch, fouled back by Hernandez. Second pitch before you can blink is a breaking ball in the dirt. Then an off-speed pitch away, then another off-speed pitch just misses the inside corner. All of a sudden, before you can even breathe, it’s 3-1.

You can almost feel it slip away. This is how these collapses happen too; almost quietly in the wake of the excitement, almost as an afterthought. Before you come down from the high of The Catch, you realize it’s all over. Everything is deflated.

One fastball thrown an inch away from home plate and that’s it. One fastball left over the middle, over the meat, and that’s it. Look how close it came to happening a moment ago. Look how easily it can all end. But instead of slipping, Buehrle took the ball from his catcher Ramon Castro without even stepping off the rubber. He rocked back into his windup, eased into his release, and threw a perfect fastball down and on the outside corner.

Full count.

And then it was never really in doubt. For a moment, failure loomed over Buehrle like the towering stadium seats and lights and noises. But when he threw that 3-1 pitch like it didn’t matter, like this was spring training or batting practice or just another 5-0 game, he won. The curveball with which he struck out Michael Hernandez was obvious. The routine groundball with which he retired Jason Bartlett was practically predetermined.

July 23 belonged to Mark Buehrle. The catch was wonderful, but the recovery, the poise, the finish. Those were perfect.

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