21 April 2012

Philip Humber's perfect game!

Humber (center) with catcher Travis Reagan and assistant coach David Pierce in Nevada in 2004.
Whenever Rice guys succeed in professional baseball, I get tremendously proud. Not because I had anything to do with their success (I didn't). Not because I competed alongside them (I was the radio broadcaster). Not because we were best friends or anything like that (we haven't stayed in touch past occasional alumni games).

I get proud because I saw these guys mature from frightened freshmen to grizzled veterans, playing in front of everything ranging from sparsely-filled bleachers in California to hostile grandstands in Hawaii. Because we shared the plane flights and the bus trips, the successes and failures. Seeing them perform on the next level is just an awesome feeling. It feels the best for the guys I came in with and the class that followed, and Philip Humber is a perfect example.

I actually got excited for Philip earlier in the week, watching him pitch against the Orioles. I only saw one inning in real time, and he was laboring, but he got into the sixth with only one run allowed, and it immediately inspired me to do some research on the slider he has added since I last saw him pitch. I watched a few innings the next day, and it took me back to three years of watching him pitch on Friday nights in college. I'll never forget when he broke the Rice single-season strikeout record against Hawaii, only to have the family of an old alumnus remind officials of a higher strikeout total from the 1920s or so.

But to hear that Philip was working on a perfect game … was just incredible. I saw him pitch when he struggled with his control and his composure. I saw him become a weekend starter as a freshman. Saw him be an unsteady pitcher on the sport’s biggest stage at the College World Series, knowing he could show the world much better than that. And I saw him prove himself to everybody in the deciding game of the 2003 College World Series with a complete game to give us the championship.

Well, everybody is going to remember his name now. I just saw a guy I know throw a perfect game in the major leagues. That’s unbelievable.

I always felt Philip was underserved as the least noticed of Rice’s three first-round draft picks. Jeff Niemann is 6-foot-9 and had the amazing 2003 season, and Wade Townsend was the outspoken, emotional guy who everybody fawned over, but Philip was the steady one. A weekend starter almost from the day he set foot on campus, it didn’t come quite as easily as everybody thought.

Always quiet but without the loud confidence of the other two, Philip was great in conference play, but the postseason was another story. Rice always seemed to lose when he pitched in the postseason, mostly due to the bullpen and a lack of run support, but occasionally due to home runs. In fact, he was the winning pitcher in only one postseason game out of I think eight appearances while he was at Rice, but that one was the 2003 championship decider.

There were so many questions about him heading into that game, because he lasted only a few innings in his last start against Texas and had taken the loss against Houston in the super regionals, but we knew Philip was plenty capable. I have a memory, which may not be entirely accurate, of senior pitcher Steven Herce predicting Humber would pitch well against Stanford because his split-fingered fastball was tailor-made for that left-handed lineup. It was, and he did, and we won the national championship, and I was so happy he was on the mound for the final out.

But even that couldn’t put him on top forever. In the 2004 regional, he took the loss in what is still one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history, a Game 1 loss to a sub-.500 Texas Southern team. When called on as a reliever two days later, he took the loss in the last game of his collegiate career, giving up a grand slam against Texas A&M. But he was picked highest of the trio for a reason, and after several teams and arm surgery (which was much, much, much more difficult than I just made it sound, but I wasn't as directly involved), he has found a home in Chicago, adding a slider to become a regular starter.

Today he entered the record books, and having broadcasted, followed, and rooted for Philip Humber for the last 10 years, being able to see the final few outs of him throwing a perfect game defies description. Congratulations, Philip -- everybody from Rice is really proud of you.

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