Friday, May 14, 2010

Unheralded Braden keeps making us believe this is his defining year

Monday May 10, 2010
Joe Posnanski
Unheralded Braden keeps making us believe this is his defining year
Story Highlights
Braden pitched the 19th perfect game in history on Sunday, beating the Rays 4-0
He was not a prospect: the 1,383rd player taken in the 2004 draft (round 24)
But his conviction overpowered the way other people viewed his limited talent

Maybe the most important thing to know about perfect game pitcher Dallas Braden is this: He was never a prospect. Not ever.

He was the 1,383rd player taken in the 2004 draft after he graduated from Alonzo Stagg High in Stockton, Calif. He just showed up at American River College in Sacramento -- the American River coach, Kevin Higgins, has said in interviews that he had never heard of Braden -- and he played well enough there to get a chance to play for Texas Tech. He pitched well enough at Texas Tech -- had a 4.56 ERA for the season, but had a couple of big wins -- that he was drafted in the 24th round by Oakland. Teams tend not to think all that much about guys taken in the 24th round; it's a good bet that Braden was drafted because he threw a screwball. Hey, nobody throws a screwball anymore.

Braden was never a prospect in the minor leagues, either. Even in 2005, when he won 15 games and was named the team's organizational Player of the Year, he was still ranked as the 19th-best A's prospect by Baseball America. The scouting report was built around the idea that he did not have a good-enough fastball or slider. The next year, he was not ranked among the A's 30 best prospects. In 2007, when he was called up to pitch after Rich Harden got hurt, he was certain it was a prank.

No, he was never highly regarded. He was not regarded at all. He was a left-handed pitcher with a Member's Only fastball -- mid-80s -- a bland slider and this one sleight-of-hand pitch that would disappear into hitters' blind spots. Or anyway, it disappeared into minor league hitters' blind spots ... that first year in the big leagues, the league hit .303 against him, and after he won his first big league decision, he lost his next eight. It was more or less a consensus that he wasn't getting big league hitters out with that stuff.

Braden did have something else, though. He had this bold certainty that he belonged. Who knows where that sort of confidence comes from? Braden's childhood has been written about before -- it wasn't easy. He lost his mother when he was a senior in high school. For a while, he lived in the hotel that his grandmother Peggy managed. In this fascinating story, his college coach told Susan Slusser that he would sometimes find Braden in the parking lot, sleeping in his truck. Braden himself has said that without his grandmother's influence, he undoubtedly would have ended up in jail. He had 209 -- the area code of his hometown Stockton -- tattooed across his chest so he would never forget where he came from. It wasn't necessary. He never could forget.

And yet, there was this boldness about him, this conviction that overpowered the way other people viewed his talent. These are the players that fascinate me most -- the ones who deeply believe they're going to make it even when all available evidence suggests they probably will not.

All of this leads to this season, which is rapidly becoming the season of Dallas Braden.

First, he publicly challenged Alex Rodriguez, who ran across the mound during a game Braden was pitching. People had different views about how egregious the run-across really was -- some think it's an obvious baseball blasphemy, others never heard of the rule -- but in the end, the larger point probably had nothing to do with A-Rod at all. The larger point was probably about a 26-year-old pitcher with limited major league success calling out the highest-paid player in baseball for daring to tread on his mound. That's what he called it. HIS MOUND. Some people mocked it -- Derek Jeter said, "It's not like he brought it from home" -- and some people respected it, but nobody could ignore it. Yes, Alex Rodriguez had more postseason extra-base hits than Braden had career victories. Yes, Alex Rodriguez had made about 250 million more dollars than Braden in salary. But the kid was not backing down.

Second, well, that happened Sunday in Oakland. There was no reason to expect much excitement on this Mother's Day. The A's were playing the Rays, the second-highest scoring offense in the league. Braden had been OK all year, but nothing more; less than two weeks earlier the Rays had knocked him out of the game with nobody out in the fifth inning. There was no promotion going. It wasn't even a free parking day in Oakland. Only 12,228 showed up -- a bunch of them sitting in section 209 in honor of Stockton. Braden breezed through the Rays in the first inning on nine pitches. The fastest pitch was 88 mph -- and it was a ball.

A screwball, as you probably know, is a pitch that breaks the opposite way of a curveball. So, when a lefty throws it, it breaks AWAY from a right-handed hitter. That pitch Braden throws that breaks away from righties is now widely viewed by pitching experts as a change-up and not a screwball -- not that it really matters what it's called. It is always interesting how pitches change names. There was, according to Rob Neyer, a pitch in the late 1800s called a fadeaway that some people think became the "screwball" and others think became the circle-change-up. Nobody knows for sure. Either way, it seems that Dallas Braden in 2010 throws the ol' fadeaway.
* * *
Braden had a slightly tougher time in the second -- he stuck mostly with hard stuff, or the hardest stuff he could manage. At the end of a six-pitch battle, he challenged Evan Longoria with an 89-mph fastball -- that's Braden's speed limit -- and got him to fly out. He worked sliders against Carlos Pena and got him to pull the third one to first. He struck out B.J. Upton looking on a high inside fastball that Upton seemed to think was too high and too far inside.

To pitch like this -- with an uncertain fastball and an out-pitch that goes Little League slow -- takes command, and it takes precision, and perhaps most of all it takes brashness. Jamie Moyer -- the master of the change-up -- once said something like this: The key to throwing a great change-up is conviction. I think he meant that you have to throw your change-up with 100 percent belief that it will get the hitter out. That's not the easiest thing to do. Hitters have done terrible things to misguided change-ups.

By the fifth inning, people began to realize that something was happening. Braden struck out Longoria on the fadeaway, got Pena to punch a pretty easy fly ball to left field, induced Upton to beat a ground ball to third. That was 15 outs in a row. The sixth inning was a thing of beauty. He struck out Willy Aybar on the fadeaway -- Aybar could not lay off though the ball probably was six inches off the plate. He got Dioner Navarro to hit a ball into foul ground on a high inside fastball at 85 mph. And he and Gabe Kapler battled through an epic 12-pitch at-bat -- Kapler hits seven foul balls out of reach, which isn't easy to do in Oakland where there's enough foul ground to build a shopping mall. The eighth foul ball stayed in play, and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff caught it for the third out.
* * *
Baseball is the only sport that offers precisely this sort of drama -- no other sport offers perfection as an option. Well, there's bowling. But among the team sports -- you really can't have a perfect game in football. High-scoring basketball games can stop the nation, but nobody is ever scoring 100 points again. Shutouts in hockey are not uncommon, and in soccer even less uncommon.

Only baseball, with its precise scorekeeping and thorough record-keeping, offers a real shot at perfection. There had been 18 perfect games thrown in baseball history, though for some reason these always include two thrown in 1880 (five days apart, no less) when it took eight balls to walk somebody, the mound was 50 feet from home plate and pitchers were still supposed to throw underhand. Completely different game then ... but baseball does cherish its past.

The first modern National League perfect game didn't happen until 1964 -- that was Jim Bunning. By then, there had been a few American League perfect games, the most prominent being Don Larsen's World Series perfect game in 1956. After Bunning, Sandy Koufax threw one in 1965 and Catfish Hunter threw one in 1968. There were none in the 1970s, but four more perfect games from 1981 through '91. Well, perfect games -- like Triple Crown horses -- tend to come in bunches.

Last year, of course, Mark Buehrle threw a perfect game -- and it's stunning how similar Buehrle is to Braden. Buehrle was a 38th-round draft choice. He could throw his fastball into the low 90s, but rarely did. He won with his change-up and with certainty. That day, the White Sox also made some great defensive plays.

The thing is ... if you had to bet on someone throwing a perfect game in today's era, you might think to bet on somebody with a 98-mph fastball and a mean streak to go with it. But you would probably bet wrong. Since 1994 -- going into Sunday -- there had been five perfect games. And four of them were thrown by what you might call, yes, crafty left-handers. Kenny Rogers threw one in 1994. His craftiness cousin, David Wells, threw one in 1998. Randy Johnson was, of course, a power pitcher, but by 2004, when he threw his perfect game, he was 40 years old and as much guile as grit. And then there was Buehrle.

And THEN there was Braden. He made it through the seventh inning with seven pitches. The eighth was his obvious challenge -- he had to face the middle of that Rays lineup again. He got Longoria to fly out on the fadeaway. Pena hit a foul pop-up on a high slider and Kouzmanoff made a dazzling catch as he ran into the third base dugout. B.J. Upton struck out on an inside fastball, 90 mph, the fastest pitch Braden would throw all day. He was pumped.

The ninth went smoothly, too. There really was no drama in this thing, no dazzling plays, no near-hits. Navarro did smack a line drive to left, but the ball hung up and was a pretty easy play for left fielder Eric Patterson. Kapler worked for a 3-1 count and then grounded to short to end the perfect game. Braden pointed to the sky, to his mother. He was mobbed by his teammates. He then went into foul ground and hugged his grandmother for a long time. The same grandmother who had kept him out of jail. The same grandmother who would laugh and tell the media "Stick it, A-Rod." Yes, baseball fans will always remember the Mother's Day Perfect Game.

It's hard to remember anyone crashing into America's sports consciousness quite like Braden -- FIRST gaining some brand of fame for talking, and THEN backing up his talk in the most dramatic way. Athletes say all the time, "Nobody believed in me." Usually they are just talking -- usually there were plenty of people who believed. But, in this case, it's true. Few did believe in Dallas Braden. He somehow kept believing in himself.

"There's nothing you can say," Braden said in his television interview immediately after he became famous forever. "It's perfect."

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