Figure eight: In just his eighth career start, Zach Stewart tossed one of the best games in White Sox history. (Huffington Post)
Sept. 5, 1993 — In a game at Detroit, Sox star slugger Frank Thomas belted his 40th home run of the year. It marked the first time a Sox player ever hit that many in a season. Thomas’ shot came off of Mike Moore in the first inning of a 5-3 win over the Tigers.
Sept. 5, 2011 — In the back half of a day/night double header in Minnesota, Sox pitcher Zach Stewart fired a one-hitter, beating the Twins, 4-0. Stewart, acquired earlier in the season from the Toronto Blue Jays, was making only his eighth career major league start.
Stewart retired the first 21 batters before Danny Valencia hit an opposite-field double to right to end Stewart’s perfect game bid. Zach would end the game with eight strikeouts. The Sox would also win the first game, 2-1, behind the strong pitching of Philip Humber.
*Bonus ghost of beat writer past content*
Monday, September 5, 2011
Posted: 3:40 p.m. Updated: 11:00 p.m.
By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com White Sox Insider
MINNEAPOLIS – The Chicago White Sox plodded into their rooms around 4 a.m. on Monday morning, flying west in the wee hours, crashing on their hotel beds, already having labored through what would promise to be anything but a relaxing Labor Day. Making matters all the more laborious, the Pale Hose had just been flushed out of Detroit in the most ignominious way possible, defeat giving way to utter embarrassment.
Then, forgotten rotation arm Phil Humber rebounded from 18 days away to toss a gem in the doubleheader opener, going seven scoreless to solidify his spot as the Chisox’s fifth starter.
That is, until Zach Stewart — Humber’s sole competition for that No. 5 slot — took the mound in the nightcap and pursued a perfect game into the eighth in defeating the Minnesota Twins, 4-0.
“I was close, but it’s one of those things,” said the mild-mannered Stewart. “I mean, I’ve given up hits before, so you get used to it.”
“I was trying not to think about it,” catcher Tyler Flowers said. “Easier said than done; yeah, I was thinking about it. Everything was possible with the way he was throwing the ball. All day he had good sinker and could locate his off-speed pretty well. This was a good day for his sinker, pretty good day for his slider, and we were pretty much working off that, mixing an occasional curveball and changeup. When a guy’s got a good sinker and we have a pretty good defense you just kind of roll with that and trust the D.”
For 82 pitches, Stewart — who was 0-1 with a 10.97 ERA in his prior two starts — carved his way through the Minnesota lineup. Stewart’s perfecto was dashed by Danny Valencia, who stroked a slider on the 83rd pitch, sending the pill into right field, the ball skipping past defensive replacement Alejandro De Aza for a leadoff double. Valencia had worked the count to 2-2 and barely missed extra bases with a screaming liner down the left-field line that fell just foul on the previous toss.
“He made a good swing on the ball and he put it in play,” Stewart said. “You just have to tip your cap to him. Honestly, I felt like I threw a good pitch right there. He just got it and did what he wanted with it. It was just a good hit.”
“I thought that was the right pitch,” Flowers said of the double. “Up inside on a couple pitches, [Valencia] was on the slider, he had a good sinker all day, so that’s the pitch that got you there. Sinker away, I was hoping it was going to freeze him. It was a little bit off the plate, too — it was a good pitch he hit, tip your hat to Danny, he did a good job putting it in play.”
Afterward, Flowers walked to the mound expecting a tension release. Instead, he was sent back to complete the job.
“I thought [Stewart] was going to crack a smirk, but he was like, ‘OK, let’s get the next guy.’ That’s good to see,” Flowers said. “I told him he was doing a good job, and let’s get the complete game W.”
The moxie shown by the greenhorn impressed the man in the dugout.
“This kid gave up the hit, lost the no-hitter and perfect game, and he came back and threw around the plate again,” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillén said. “Man at third? No panic. That’s a good thing when kids prepare themselves, acting on the mound like that. It’s not cockiness of anything. He’s got confidence. He’s not afraid.”
The White Sox ensured a sweep on the strength of solid, three-hit games from Alex Rios, Brent Morel and Alexei Ramírez. That trio also drove in three of the four White Sox runs in the game.
“That was nice, getting one early, after that series in Detroit where we felt like we were behind the whole time,” Morel said. “We got one early and kept tacking runs on.”
Before the doubleheader, Guillén was hesitant to permanently promote the better of the two No. 5 candidates tonight to the rotation for the final three weeks of the season, claiming he didn’t yet know, and that Humber’s and Stewart’s fate was tied to that of rehabilitating veteran Jake Peavy.
After the stellar starts, leading the White Sox to their first doubleheader sweep in Minnesota in more than 35 years, Guillen might be tempted to reshuffle his rotation to keep this competition red-hot.
As outstanding as Stewart was, Humber was almost equally devastating.
After a stellar performance in beating the Chicago Cubs at the beginning of July, Humber went six straight starts without a win. He was in danger of losing his spot in the rotation, and could well have lost his season after that frightening line drive off the forehead that drove him from his August 18 start and to the disabled list.
Returning to the mound for the first time since being sprung from the DL, Humber picked up right where he’d left off before the All-Star break, pitching seven scoreless, walkless innings in driving a 2-1 win in the first game of their doubleheader.
“I’m so thankful; it feels like it’s been a year since I had a win,” Humber said. “The guys did a great job getting us runs early. I just kind of got a lot of ground balls, and it was a great feeling to have some success. It’s a lot more fun getting them out than struggling to hold them. Hopefully I’ll build off of that and use that confidence to my next couple starts.”
“We needed Phil come out the way he did today,” Guillén said. “Just for the ballclub, besides sparing the bullpen because of a doubleheader, we needed this type of game to try to get it going and build some confidence. We didn’t do much [offensively], but to win this game after the last three days we had and a very short night, to come back and [win], hopefully those guys get some momentum going and continue to play the way we did today.”
It was a relief for the manager to see the first-half Humber emerge.
“His breaking ball was pretty good, and on top of that we made a couple of nice plays in the field, we caught a couple of balls out there to help him,” Guillén said. “His fastball was good, and sinker, threw a big pitch when he had to, and we turned a big double play [to end the seventh inning, and Humber’s outing]. It seemed like he got it back after the time off and was stronger once again.”
The White Sox gave Humber all the support he’d need in tallying once in the second and again in the third. The first run scored when De Aza beat out a double-play grounder, allowing A.J. Pierzynski (double) to score. In the third, Ramírez doubled home Juan Pierre (single) to put the White Sox up by two.
Minnesota rallied for a run in the bottom of the ninth off closer Sergio Santos, who gave up a walk, a single and a sac fly and was pulled for Chris Sale, who struck out Jason Repko for the final out for his sixth save in seven chances.
“That last thing we want to lose is a game like that, because that would kill us for good,” Guillén said in explaining the move of Santos to Sale.
Any semblance of closer controversy was completely averted by Stewart going the distance in the nightcap, as Stewart finished with 114 pitches and eight strikeouts against no walks, and just Valencia’s sole safety.
In the end, the two youngest and shakiest starters on the Sox stitched together two of just a handful of the best starts of the season, a circumstance much better than Guillén could have hoped for.
“It was great for us, besides great for them to win the games,” the manager said. “The last few games, we’ve been beat up pretty good. We’ve been using the pen and a day/night doubleheader puts in the back of your mind that I hope this goes good and I don’t use that many guys in the pen. Our pen was very thin today, so besides winning the games and throwing well, on top of that they saved our pen and let it recover.”
The young fellas just roll with it
You’ll never accuse Stewart of being overly stressed, a characteristic he shares with several of the key rookies starring in the near-perfecto.
“I would say I probably noticed [the perfect game] in the fifth or sixth, but it still wasn’t one of those things where I was going for a no-hitter or a perfect game or whatever it was,” Stewart admitted. “Going into the eighth was when I was finally saying I had to focus and bear down to get through this.”
In fact, the chill Texan with the surfer’s curls had an unusual word for the most stressful circumstance a pitcher can find himself in: fun.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “It was one of those things I felt in the pen. The ball was coming out good and I can tell it was going to be somewhat of a good night. I didn’t know it was going to be that good. It just felt good from the beginning.”
Morel had some great stops at third base to help preserve the magic, but credited his starter with setting the tone.
“He did such a good job of working so quick, it’s like we were never on defense, like we were up to bat all the time trying to score runs,” said the rookie. “He was working quick and getting us back in the dugout. It’s so much easier when a guy is working quick and isn’t giving up a lot of hits. You’re out there for five minutes at a time, on your toes, expecting a ground ball. With these sinkerball guys, you gotta be ready every pitch.”
Meanwhile, when asked if the pitch he called that broke up the perfect game — a sinker away — would haunt him, the cool catcher played it off legit.
“Me? Nah,” Flowers answered. “I’ll think about it another two hours, then put it away and get ready for tomorrow.”
Maybe the best compliment of the night came from the low-key Paul Konerko, who spoke to the age issue with his usual aplomb.
“You feel good with [Stewart] out there,” he said. “He’s in control, and he’s going to make the other guy hit him. He pitches a lot older than his age.”
Six Pack of Stats – Game 2
Pressure Play (highest-leverage situation)
In a game like this one, pressure is going to leak out at unexpected times, and a 2.05 LI came from Gordon Beckham’s fly ball in the second inning, advancing Alex Rios to third and setting up the first run of the game for Chicago. White Sox 0, Twins 0.
Pressure Cooker (highest total leverage faced in the game)
Barely edging out Beckham for top game pressure was Twins starter Scott Diamond, with a 1.23 pLI for the game.
Wauoooo of the Day (greatest win probability added, single play)
With a .110 WPA, it was the last two White Sox runs that added most to the win, when Morel singled up the middle to drive in Ramírez and Rios. White Sox 4, Twins 0
Game MVP (greatest win probability added, game)
Is there any question? Stewart takes MVP honors with a .447 WPA for the game, six points better than Humber’s outstanding effort in the first game of the doubleheader.
According to @maxjusttyped on Twitter, Stewart’s amazing 94 game score wasn’t just tops for the White Sox this season, but it was the second-highest game score in all of baseball this season. That was keyed not only by the single hit, but nine strikeouts against zero walks.
Scott Diamond recorded a 45 game score for the Twins in taking his third loss in four decisions. His ineffective effort was scarred by eight hits over just five innings, and two walks against four Ks.