White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle was a frontline starting pitcher for 15 of the 16 years he pitched in the Majors, posting double-digit victories and at least 30 starts each season from 2001 to 2015. He came up 1 1/3 innings short in 2015 of producing his 15th-straight year with at least 200 innings pitched.
Yet during that amazing run of excellence -- with five All-Star appearances, four Gold Gloves and 214 victories -- Buehrle was not the guy anyone thought was capable of throwing a no-hitter, which he did, or a perfect game, which he also did. And the perfecto happened 10 years ago on July 23, 2009.
“I can’t believe that happened to me,” Buehrle recalls. “I’m not a guy who should be throwing perfect games, with not striking guys out, not hard throwing. Just same thing with the no-hitter. I said I would never throw a perfect game, or a no-hitter, and I ended up doing both of them. So, it was, 'No way. That just didn’t happen.’”
You can be forgiven then, for not remembering this perfect game, one of only 23 such games thrown in the great history of Major League Baseball. In fact, he doesn't remember it much, either.
“A lot of times someone will say, ‘Hey, Happy Anniversary’ and I’m like, ‘It’s not my anniversary, dude,’” Buehrle said. “I wouldn’t have even told you on that date of the perfect game or no-hitter, and I wouldn’t have told you I knew it was six or 10 or 15 years. I don’t pay attention.”
The White Sox lineup on that Thursday afternoon series finale against the Tampa Bay Rays featured Josh Fields at first base, Jayson Nix at second, Paul Konerko at designated hitter and Scott Podsednik in center. One thing Buehrle did recall about the game was the fine defensive work by third baseman Joe Crede. Only it was rookie Gordon Beckham manning the hot corner that day.
“See, I don’t even remember,” Buehrle joked.
It is the three outs of the ninth inning that tell the whole story, each in its own way, for those who remember it. Dewayne Wise made the catch of his life. Ramon Castro, catching Buehrle for the first time, called the game of his life. And shortstop Alexei Ramirez nervously recorded the final out on a gimpy ankle.
Catch of his life
There were only a few tricky plays among the 27 outs recorded by Buehrle, including a hard-hit ball from Melvin Upton, now B.J. Upton, to Nix on the very first pitch of the contest. But the play everyone remembers is the catch made by Wise to rob Gabe Kapler, leading off the ninth, of a home run. Quite simply, the catch saved the perfect game, not to mention the no-hitter and shutout.
“Some people don’t remember that Wise wasn’t in that game, and then he was the guy who made that great catch and the guy who saved the game for Buehrle,” said Jose Contreras, a fellow member of the White Sox rotation in ’09. “That ball was over the fence. And he caught it. That was a very special moment.”
“At that time Dewyane Wise played the most shallow center field in the American League,” said iconic White Sox broadcaster Ken "Hawk" Harrelson of one of his favorite afternoons in the booth. “I could tell that ball was going by the sound of the bat and the swing. He couldn’t get there, but the adrenaline kicked in and he put it in another gear.”
Wise had entered the game as a defensive replacement in the ninth, moving Podsednik from center to left. The sensational grab made by Wise is honestly a play Podsednik probably doesn’t make, but in fairness to him, it’s a play most outfielders don’t make.
Kapler connected on a 2-2 pitch and drove the ball deep to left-center. Wise sprinted straight toward the baseball, jumped at the wall without slowing down and somehow pulled the ball back from over the fence. It left Buehrle two outs away from perfection in what might be the greatest defensive play in franchise history.
“He hit it good,” said Buehrle of Kapler. “It was actually a great pitch. So, if it would have been a bad pitch or I would have left it up a little bit more, then I would have been like, ‘Yeah he got it.’ But, I thought it was a pretty good pitch, so I didn’t know if he got it all.”
In a bit of unintentional dramatic flair, Wise juggled the ball as he rolled to the ground, only to snatch the ball with his bare hand at the last second.
“Once he caught it, I kind of think I was in shock,” Buehrle said. “I didn’t see the bobble and the barehanded catch until we got to Detroit that night.
“We turned the TV on and watched it. I was like ‘Holy crap, I didn’t know that.’ I was in shock he caught it, surprised, and then even on top of that, once he did the whole bobble thing I was like, ‘Man that went from an unbelievable catch to a more unbelievable catch.’”
As for Kapler, well, in hindsight he's made his peace with being robbed of the home run.
“First, I was, like, bitter that I didn’t have a home run," Kapler said, "and bitter that we weren’t able to break up the perfect game. But strangely and very quickly I transitioned to feeling happy for Dewayne Wise, because, look, that is going to turn out to be the play that defines his career. And Mark Buehrle has a perfect game under his belt.
"Looking back, if you strip all that out and that didn’t happen, I have a home run and we have one more run on the board. But, like, who really cares? The history of baseball was altered by that play. There are only a handful of perfect games in the history of the game, and Mark Buehrle has one of them, and Dewayne Wise lives in [the history books]. So I’d make that tradeoff.”
Buehrle had a picture commissioned of that spectacular catch that still hangs in Wise’s home today.
“I got one for him and Castro,” Buehrle said. “And [White Sox head groundskeeper] Roger [Bossard] gave me all the bases and home plate and the pitching mound. So, I gave a base to both of them from the game.”
Game of his life
Castro was behind the plate because manager Ozzie Guillen gave starting catcher A.J. Pierzynski a day off before a scheduled Friday doubleheader in Detroit between the then-top two teams in the American League Central. Castro had been acquired from the Mets on May 30 in a trade sending Lance Broadway to New York, and this game would be the first time Buehrle had thrown to Castro in any capacity.
Despite that, he left the thinking and game-calling to the backstop.
“I didn’t shake him off,” Buehrle said. “You put the fingers down and I’ll throw it just like every catcher who goes out there, whether you are a 10-year-veteran or it’s your first game you are starting.
“You are going to get the game plan with the pitching coach, sit down and go over it. I’m not going to sit down and go over anything. You go off your game plan and put the fingers down and I’ll try to make a good pitch.”
And that included perhaps the most pivotal pitch of the game to get the second out of the ninth inning. Michel Hernandez, a catcher who finished with 127 career plate appearances, had worked the count full against Buehrle -- only the fifth three-ball count of the game. With a full count, Castro had the courage to call for a changeup, and Buehrle had the conviction to throw it. It worked, as Buehrle got the swinging strikeout, only his sixth strikeout of the game.
“Everything I had was working that day and my changeup was probably the best pitch,” Buehrle said. “For Castro to even put that down right there in that situation of the game, that says a lot about him having the confidence in me.
“Never once in my mind I was like, ‘Oh, crap, don’t call a 3-2 changeup right here because I’d rather throw a fastball.’ My changeup was working so good that game that if he put something else down I would have been ‘No, go to the changeup.’ He put it down and I made a good pitch.”
In a odd bit of trivia, umpire Eric Cooper was behind home plate for the perfect game, just as he was behind home plate for Buehrle’s no-hitter thrown against the Rangers on April 18, 2007. In that earlier contest, Buehrle issued one walk to Sammy Sosa and promptly picked him off. So he also faced 27 on that night.
The final out
Jason Bartlett had one of the previous three-ball counts resulting in a weak grounder to Ramirez ending the sixth. In the ninth, with Buerhle now one out away from history, he worked the count to 2-1 before producing the same result as Bartlett hit the ball to the left of Ramirez.
“I wanted that the ball comes to me but by fly, not by rolling,” said Ramirez. “I wanted it to be a fly ball because I was a little tight with my ankle. When the batter hit the ball, I just said to myself, ‘Hey, you have to take it, no matter what.’ I did it. It was the most exciting moment for me.”
Fields caught the throw from Ramirez, leading Harrelson -- to put forth his famous final call: “Alexei ... Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! History!”
“Of the thousands of games I’ve had the honor to call, and the big accomplishments of individual players, that was the greatest I’ve ever experienced,” Harrelson said. “I texted my wife and said ‘Honey, Mark Buehrle has a perfect game and I think he’s going to get it.' The catch by Wise, under the circumstances, that was the greatest catch I’ve ever seen.”
Buehrle placed his hands on his head and the celebration began.
“He is my favorite White Sox player of all time,” said Harrelson of Buehrle. “I had tears in my eyes after Alexei threw that last out.”
Buehrle, Wise and Fields -- who hit a grand slam off Scott Kazmir in the 5-0 perfect game victory -- joined Buerhle on the Late Show with David Letterman a few days after the perfect game, where they read off the "Top 10 Things That Went Through Mark Buehrle’s Mind During His Perfect Game." But nothing could compare to getting a call from President Barack Obama -- a chance to talk to the "First White Sox Fan" the same day as perfection.
“That was more of a shock,” Buehrle said. “When [Scott] Reifert [White Sox director of communications] came in and said, ‘You have to go talk to the president,’ I thought, ‘That’s a good one to get me out of the media room so I can quit talking to the media.’ Not realizing it was a legitimate thing.”
Did you know?
Here’s the final kicker to Buehrle’s dominance. In his next start against the Twins at the Metrodome on July 28, he retired the first 17 batters faced before issuing a sixth-inning walk to Alexi Casilla and yielding a Denard Span single. Those 45 straight batters retired stood as a Major League record until Yusmeiro Petit retired 46 straight in 2014.
Buehrle admits that he broke with superstition in the fifth inning of that perfect game, talking to teammates in the dugout. Had he finished off work at the Metrodome, we would be talking about a whole other level of baseball history, one that would surpass even Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters in 1938.
Whatever the case may be, the perfect game, a separate no-hitter, a World Series title and, surprisingly, his only career home run are the career milestones that mean the most to Buerhle.
“Winning the World Series [in 2005], that’s more of a team thing, that’s the ultimate goal and that was an absolute blast,” Buehrle said. “On a personal level, I’d probably have to go with that and [hitting] the home run [on June 14, 2009 off of Milwaukee’s Braden Looper]. I thought I would never ever get a hit in the big leagues and I ended up getting a home run.
“Probably the perfect game, because that hasn’t happened very often. When I threw the perfect game and when I hit the home run, that was the same thing. It was like, 'No way that just happened.'”