Perfect game pitcher an unlikely hero

For years, the description most closely associated with Philip Humber was “first-round bust.”

Now and forever, his name will appear beside the most hallowed term in baseball: “perfect game.”

Saturday in Seattle, Humber pitched only the 21st perfect game in MLB history. Baseball has witnessed more since 2009 than in any other four-year period of the game’s history: Mark Buehrle (2009); Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay (2010); and now Humber.

Halladay is on course for the Hall of Fame. Buehrle ranks second in wins among active pitchers under age 35. Braden was in the midst of a breakthrough season when he zeroed the Rays on May 9, 2010.

Humber? This win — 4-0 over the Seattle Mariners — was only the 12th of his career. A few minutes after retiring Brendan Ryan for the final out — on a quasi-controversial checked swing — the Twitter account @Philip_Humber had only 2,179 followers.

By almost any measure, the 29-year-old from Nacogdoches, Texas, is one of the more obscure pitchers to throw a perfect game.

And that only makes the story better.

The New York Mets made Humber the third overall pick of the 2004 amateur draft — one selection behind Justin Verlander, nine ahead of Jered Weaver. But he underwent Tommy John elbow surgery during his first professional season — performed by the noted Dr. James Andrews in 2005 — and was never quite the same.

Humber appeared in only five games with the Mets before they shipped him to the Minnesota Twins in the Johan Santana trade just prior to the 2008 season. (“The Twins hardly wanted him,” recalled one official familiar with the talks.) Humber spent two nondescript years in the Minnesota organization and another in Kansas City, bouncing between the majors and minors, never gaining a foothold.

By the end of the 2010 season, Humber was 2-1 with a 5.26 ERA in 26 big-league games. The Royals, short on pitching, nonetheless decided they could do without him. Kansas City placed him on waivers in December 2010, and the Oakland A’s plucked him off the wire.

One month later, the A’s waived him. The White Sox took a flyer. (If this sounds like the Jeremy Lin story, that’s because it does.) Humber joined the White Sox so close to spring training last year that Chicago’s 2011 media guide included a photo of him wearing a Royals cap.

But when Jake Peavy wasn’t ready to start last season after undergoing a rare muscle-reattachment surgery, Humber had his chance to join the rotation. He became a revelation, holding the New York Yankees through 6 1/3 innings on April 25, 2011 — almost exactly one year ago. Humber pitched so well that the White Sox went to a six-man rotation, in part to keep him on the club after Peavy returned.

The season wasn’t all storybook: A line drive off the bat of Kosuke Fukudome hit Humber above his right eye last Aug. 18. He missed two weeks. But he came back in September and finished the season with a career-high nine strikeouts during a start at Toronto. It seemed, at last, that he had arrived in the majors as the pitcher he was supposed to be.

But this? Many of the game’s greatest pitchers never put together a no-hitter, let alone a perfect game. (The Mets are still waiting for their first no-no.) If anything, Saturday’s masterpiece proved that Humber’s ability might finally have eclipsed his potential.

Verlander, who maintains a strict pre-start routine, deviated slightly Saturday so he could watch the end of Humber’s bid for history on a clubhouse television. “I saw the last out,” he said. “It was one minute before I had to walk on the field. For something like that, you’ve got to step away from yourself for a second.”

Verlander, of course, is barred from the “Perfect Club” in a widely viewed commercial for the video game MLB 2K12. “Just can’t get in,” he quipped. “Kate Upton’s just going to let (Humber) go right by now and stop me.”

Jack Bowen was the Mets’ scouting director in 2004, when Humber was a star at Rice University alongside first-round teammates Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend. The Mets wanted Verlander, but the Tigers took him just before they made their pick. Humber appealed to the Mets as a safe pick, a right-handed pitcher they knew would make it.

Seven years later, he finally has.

Bowen scouts for the Pirates these days. He was on the road — looking for the next great pitcher — when his phone started buzzing Saturday afternoon. “It doesn’t get any better than that,” he told me over the phone.

No, it doesn’t.