As I write this, it’s May 29th, 2020. 15 years ago today, Roy Halladay was nearly perfect; 10 years ago today, he was. Let’s check it out. (And FYI, I really didn’t have time to compose this, so it’s quite long. I might’ve done a better job editing if I hadn’t needed to pop it out the same day I wrote it in order for it to be relevant, so I’m sorry for the length of the piece.)
I’ve felt a special affinity with Roy Halladay for a long time. I love underdog stories – I mean, who doesn’t? But I’m a literal David, and I think David and Goliath stories hold a special resonance for us with that name. I was a high school shot putter, but undersized (for a large-school shot putter, anyway). And one of my great pleasures in life was watching bigger kids overlook me as we stood around, sizing up opponents… and then beating those same guys later. (I wasn’t great or anything – but I was pretty good; too small, not quite strong enough, but had great technique. But I digress.)
Halladay’s career started basically as badly as it could in 2000 – with the only season in the 60’6″ era of 52+ IP and an ERA over 10.00! I mean, technically, that was his third season, but it was the first one in which he was primarily a starting pitcher. And yikes.
Plus, Halladay played in Toronto – a Canadian city in an American game. (Not that Canadians can’t make valuable contributions to baseball – right, Doug?) In the era of the Yankee-Red Sox duopoly, playing for any other team in the AL East made you, by definition, an underdog.
(To top it off, and this is a sad thing: Halladay died on my 31st birthday. I’m not happy about this, but it is a point of connection that makes me feel more connected to a player I always liked.)
Now, to the games. By 2005, Halladay had already won a Cy Young (2003, with 22 wins – a number matched or topped only 6 times since; he also pitched 266 innings – the only season with more than 260 IP in this millenium, and therefore likely the last one ever. I’m not going to hold my breath for the next one, anyway). In 2004, he was ineffective and injured. So in 2005, he came back and would be named to the All-Star team. But this game was early days.
By the time the Jays played host to the Twins on May 29th, 2005, Halladay had already impressed. His every outing on the year had gone 6+ innings. He was averaging a Game Score of 60.6 to date. The Jays were struggling along in 4th place in the 5-team AL East – but of course, they were only half a game back of Boston for third, and they did have a winning record (26-23), so things were going well. Halladay’s previous start had been 7 shutout innings of 4-hit, 2-walk interleague ball against the newly-minted Washintgon Nationals, lowering his ERA to 2.84 – which is, as you might know, quite good, particularly in the AL East.
Anyway, this was a 1:00 home game for the Jays against the Twins. The 2005 Twins were coming in with back-to-back-to-back division titles. These were not the hapless Twins of the 90s; prior to 2005, they had four consecutive winning seasons. In fact, the Twins would post winning seasons every year but one from 2001-2010. That said, these weren’t exactly teams known for their offensive brilliance. It was mostly Johan Santana (who had beaten the Jays in the series opener two days earlier), outstanding run prevention, a bad division, and inevitable losses to the Yankees for the Twins of the decade. Still, they were 29-19 entering the game, the AL’s third-best record.
Anyway, to the game: After a groundout to third to start the game by Shannon Stewart, Nick Punto bunted for base hit. If you’re familiar with Punto’s oeuvre, you’ll recognize “bunt for base hit” as one of the most potent offensive weapons in his arsenal – he of the career 76 OPS+, who was somehow both A.) even worse than that in 2005, and B.) stayed in the majors until 2014 on the strength of his defensive versatility and ability. Punto then stole 2B, and the Twins were sitting pretty with a runner in scoring position and one out in the top of the first. It would be their last real threat of the day. Following a flyout and strikeout, the threat was over and Punto was stranded.
Halladay followed that performance with a fabulous second inning – a strikeout sandwiched between popouts to second. At this point, he had thrown only 4 balls all day, versus 13 strikes. It was going to be that kind of day.
After more efficient-though-uneventful out-getting, In the fifth, a ball left the infield for only the second time all game, as Torii Hunter matched Matt LeCroy‘s feat from the first by flying out to centerfield. In the sixth, the Twins mounted another “threat.” This time it was Stewart with a two-out hit… which, again, failed to leave the infield, as it was a grounder to third. The second 2-3 putout of the inning ended things, which bookended a strikeout. The 7th didn’t offer much more interest – popout, groundout, strikeout.
The 8th inning featured Halladay’s worst pitch of the day so far. Following a groundout, Halladay plunked Michael Cuddyer on a 1-2 pitch to allow the Twins their third baserunner of the day (again, I will remind you that all three runners reached without ever hitting a ball to leave the infield). Another strikeout and a groundout set things up for the ninth.
Then came the ninth. Stewart hit the best ball of the day – a liner to right-center. That’s the kind that usually causes a pitcher to be removed. But the game was safely in hand, Halladay was efficient, and a groundout brought him within one out. Facing LeCroy for the final time, Halladay struck him out on three pitches.
In all, Halladay ended it with a 93 game score. The ball left the infield only thrice, the game lasted just a shade over 2 hours, and Halladay did it efficiently – only 99 pitches in a shutout. Only once all day did he get himself into a three-ball count. For what it’s worth, since I forgot to mention what the Jay’s offense did, they hit two solo HR and manufactured two other runs to win the game 4-0. The idea that this could be the second best game Roy Halladay ever pitched on May 29 sounds, to me, preposterous. But five years to the day later came something altogether more remarkable.
Since our last game, Halladay had changed teams and leagues, signing with the Phillies prior to the 2010 season, adding baseball’s best pitcher to the reigning, two-time NL champs. He had led the league in SO:BB two consecutive seasons (and would do it again in ’10 and ’11). Entering the day on May 29th, they were 27-20 and in first place, but with only the NL’s fourth-best record. The Marlins were the definition of middling – 24-25. While the Phils would go on to be the only 100-win team of the first half-decade of the 2010s, winning 102.
That day, the Phillies faced Josh Johnson. It’s probably hard to remember just how often people talked about the abilities of Johnson as an elite pitcher in the ’00s, but every sentence praising his abilities seemed to end – justifiably – with the phrase “when healthy.” He would wind up the ERA (and FIP) leader in the NL in ’10, as part of a second-straight season of 5+ WAR. Johnson was also part of the ’06 Marlins – a team whose roster you should just marvel at one day, to think about what could’ve been, if any Marlins owner/ownership group in history had any interest whatsoever in putting together and keeping together a team of winning players.
On that Saturday in 2010, Halladay had his work cut out for him. Johnson was stellar: he posted a Game Score of 66, going seven innings and allowing seven hits and one walk, while striking out 6. Just one run allowed – an unearned run. It’s a game that, if your starter gives you, you have to feel pretty great about your chances to win. He only allowed one two-hit inning, and the Phillies didn’t even manage to score! So what happened?
Halladay began the game with two strikeouts and a grounder to second. After Halladay himself struck out to end a Phillies threat (runners on second and third, two out), his pitching in the second was nearly identical to the first, beginning with two strikeouts and ending with a grounder… but this time to third. He had gotten in a little trouble in each of the first two innings, having three, three-ball counts in the first two innings. Twice, he ended the at-bats by striking out the batters in question.
The top of the third began with Shane Victorino flying out; thereafter, Wilson Valdez singled on a liner to center. But the weird stuff happened with Chase Utley‘s at bat. Marlins CF Cameron Maybin misplayed a deep fly ball to center, allowing Valdez to score and Utley to reach third. The run was unearned, but it made the game 1-0. After intentionally walking Ryan Howard, Johnson struck out the next two batters to clear the table and sit only one run back. That would be it for scoring for the day. Literally every one of the next 21 batters Halladay faced on the day represented the game-tying run. His 1.224 average Leverage Index is the highest ever in a perfecto – meaning he had the most pressure (excepting, one would think, the external circumstances of the Larsen game, one would think).
In the third, following a popup to 2B, Maybin tried to avenge his error with a flyball to center (the first ball to leave the infield all day), but to no avail. Johnson ended things with a swinging strikeout. Once through the order, and a third of the game was over.
The fourth inning was the shadow of the third: the first out went to 2B (but on the ground this time), the second out was a flyout to center, and the third out was a strikeout (though looking this time), and the fifth threatened to repeat the pattern: groundout to second and flyball to center. It ended a little differently, though: a groundout to third ended the inning.
In the sixth, Halladay faced the bottom of the order for the second time. after a strikeout and groundout to short, Johnson tried to help his own cause with a flyball in the LF-CF gap, but it was caught by Raul Ibanez to end the inning.
In the seventh, it was time to bear down for Halladay. He got another catch from Ibanez between two strikeouts, and things really started to get serious. Halladay had been allowing a ball to the outfield each inning; the eighth saw a change, with a grounder to 3B, a strikeout, and a popup to short.
Now, entering the bottom of the ninth with a perfect game on the line, it’s often considered bad form to pull out all the stops – sort of one of the “unwritten rules” of baseball. Sure, you can pinch-hit for the pitcher, but more than that is unseemly. Well, this one was different. This was still a 1-0 game!
First, the Marlins pinch hit Mike Lamb – a decision I’m not sure I understand, because he wasn’t exactly a great hitter – nor even the best hitter on their bench. That honor belonged to Wes Helms, who pinch hit for Maybin after Lamb flied out to center. Helms struck out looking at a 1-2 pitch, Halladay’s 11th punchout of the day.
As a coda, it would be unfair to say that Halladay got even better from there… but he was nearly as good the rest of the year. I mean, it’s not like he faced the Marlins exclusively. He won 21 games and threw four shutouts on the season. He totaled 250 2/3 innings pitched in 2010. The only other pitcher to throw 250 innings since is Justin Verlander, who threw 251 in his MVP season of 2011. Halladay was, therefore, the last to ever pitch 260 innings, and nearly the last to pitch 250. In winning the Cy Young, 2010 marked Halladay’s fifth-straight top-5 Cy Young finish (3rd, 5th, 2nd, 5th); he would be runner-up in 2011, as well, to make it six straight when all was said and done. And, oh yeah – it might not’ve been his best pitched game in 2010. It certainly wasn’t his only no-hitter that season, and the other one was in the playoffs.
So there you have it, folks. Both ten and fifteen years ago, Hall of Famer Roy Halladay was fabulous on this date. For my money, the first game was probably actually a little better-pitched; I say that without having watched these games (I did watch the perfecto on replay back in ’10), but honestly, that baseball basically didn’t leave the infield, which is all you can really reasonably ask of a pitcher. Either way, he got the help he needed on both days. Halladay was taken from us too soon, but we can let May 29th be a day to remember him and the outstanding pitcher he was.