SAN FRANCISCO How difficult, how elusive, how magicallyfated is a perfect game?
Consider this: Matt Cain struck out 14 batters on anunforgettable Wednesday night in China Basin. It matched Sandy Koufaxs iconicperformance in 1965 as the most strikeouts in a perfect game in history.
And yet Cain needed so much support, so many breaks, so muchluck and maybe even some angels breath.
Here is how it happened, inning by inning:
First inning: 11 pitches.
Cain likes to establish his fastball early and it was clearhe had plenty of late movement and cut and pinpoint control as he threwfour of them to strike out Jordan Schafer. He went fastball-curve-fastball tostrike out Jose Altuve. Jed Lowrie hit a foul pop.
Second inning: 12 pitches.
Before it became edge-of-the-seat stuff., Cain faced hisfirst three-ball count of the evening. Brett Wallace, a play in the Moneyballmold, fouled off a 3-1 fastball. Cain hadnt thrown either of his first twochangeups in the strike zone, but Buster Posey called for one. Wallace swungthrough it.
Third inning: 17 pitches.
Cain began to find a groove with his changeup and slider.Snyder and pitcher J.A. Happ took called third strikes on fastballs thatsnapped back across the zone. Umpire Ted Barrett was giving him the black, aspitchers call it. Cain had gone through the lineup once. Even at this earlyjuncture, he could sense he had it within himself to no-hit the Astros.
Fourth inning: 22 pitches
Schafer worked Cain for a 10-pitch at-bat that included fivetwo-strike fouls including one that came within a millimeter, as firstbaseman Brandon Belt saw it, of being a double down the line. Replays wereinconclusive; Belt said it definitely hit in front of the bag and was hookingsharply. Umpire Mike Muchlinski called it foul and Cain, now operating with afour-run lead after two-run homers by Melky Cabrera and Belt, stayedaggressive. He only threw one ball among the 10 pitches to Schafer, who finallyswung through a fastball. Little Jose Altuve, all 5-foot-5 of him, didnt getany breaks on the zone. Barrett rang him up on a third strike above theletters.
Fifth inning: 14 pitches
Two more strikeouts. One ball in play, to second basemanRyan Theriot. Moving along
Sixth inning: 10 pitches
With 76 pitches through five innings, Cain needed an economyframe. He got it here. Bruian Bogusevic took a fastball for a third strike,then Snyder flied out to left field on the first pitch. And what a fly out itwas. The ball was crushed to left field but appeared to hang in the cool nightair, and left fielder Melky Cabrera jumped at the wall as he made the catch.Said center fielder Angel Pagan: I had the best view. The ball wasnt goingout. It was out. Then it cut back. That ball was 10 rows deep. I've never seen that before, a ball come back like that. Once I saw that playCain received another contribution from catcher Posey, who blocked acurveball that struck out pinch hitter Brian Bixler. Posey threw to first basefor the out. Remember, it isnt perfect unless its a no-reach game.
Seventh inning: 17 pitches
For the first time since the second inning, and just thesecond time in the game, Cain went to a three-ball count. He missed with acurve and fastball before coming back with another that broke right toSchafers barrel. Gregor Blanco, who had shifted toward the gap on Schafer,raced back to the track in right-center nearly 410 feet from home plate andleft his feet while making a catch at the track that nobody could believe. AsCain later asked him, What were you even doing there? Now, much like Aaron Rowandscatch in Jonathan Sanchezs no-hitter in 2010, history appeared to be the workof fate. But those final seven outs wouldnt come easily. Cain missed on aslider to run the count full against Lowrie, then came back with his hardestfastball of the night on his 101st pitch -- at 94 mph. Lowriefouled it off. Posey had the guts to call for a changeup and Cain didnthesitate, throwing one that was written in disappearing ink as it flutteredpast Lowries swing.
Eighth inning: 11 pitches
In the seventh, Giants manager Bruce Bochy took PabloSandoval out, inserted Brandon Crawford at shortstop and moved Joaquin Arias tothird base. An inning before that, he substituted Emmanuel Burriss at secondbase for Theriot. The earlier move was designed to give Theriot a rest and getBurriss some playing time in a blowout game. But the changes in the seventh hadperfection in mind. They paid off in the eighth, as Martinez hit a slow rollerthat Arias charged and threw accurately on the run. Next came another three-ballcount. It was Wallace again, who didnt bite on two 1-2 sliders. Cain came backwith his simplest, best pitch a challenge fastball and Wallace shook hishead after Barrett hit the cash register. With Cain just four outs away, ChrisJohnson hit a tricky, topspin hopper to short. It was the kind of ball that hadeaten up Crawford so many times in April and early May, and he was cold off thebench. But he backed up to make sure he wasnt caught in between hops, thenmade a clean pickup, transfer and throw.
Ninth inning: 11 pitches
This was it. It was real, all of it. Bochy didnt dare put areliever on the bullpen mound, but he had Shane Loux secretly warming up in thebatting cage, ready to enter the moment Cain gave up a hit. That did nothappen. Bogusevic lifted a 2-2 fastball to left field. Cabrera raced over tocatch it near the line. Snyder lifted a 1-0 fastball. Cabrera barely had tomove to catch it. Pinch hitter Jason Castro was last. Cain worked the count inhis favor, 1-2. Then he threw one final fastball on his 125th pitch again, at 94 mph, matching his hardest of the night. Castro almost slapped itout of Poseys glove. Arias was there to field it, and he appeared to nearlylose his balance. Finally, he set his feet just enough, and with his body stillfalling away from first base, he fired the throw of his life that hit Beltsglove on a line. It was instant euphoria. It was history. It was the 22ndperfect game in baseball history, and the first by a Giant in the franchises129-year existence.
Cains first reaction, to Bochy, was This is stupid.
Sweetly, blessedly, unforgettably stupid.