Galarraga rewards Tigers' faith in him
Sharper slider leads right-hander to brink of history
DETROIT -- The first starting pitcher cut from Tigers camp this spring was a blown call away from the first perfect game in franchise history.
For Armando Galarraga, Wednesday's one-hit shutout that should've been far more was just the start of his mixed emotions. When asked after the gem for his reaction, he basically had to shrug.
He's well-known in the Tigers clubhouse for his card tricks. He had to feel like he got tricked out of history in a 3-0 win over the Indians.
"I don't know," Galarraga said. "I'm happy and sad. I don't know."
He didn't know how to react to the call, and neither did many people. Many watching from afar, though, didn't know how to react to Galarraga pitching this way in the first place.
The closest the Tigers have gotten to a perfect game was Kevin Costner. He played the fictional pitcher Billy Chapel in the 1999 movie "For Love of the Game," which revolves around Chapel tossing a perfect game in his final start. In reality, Wednesday could be the start that finally gets Galarraga's career rolling.
He led the Tigers in victories as a rookie in 2008 after coming over in a Minor League trade, but was out of the rotation by the stretch run of the American League Central race last fall. Galarraga had manager Jim Leyland raving about him over the winter, his hope renewed by a healthy arm and a brief winter ball stint, but his struggles to attack hitters made him the first starting candidate sent to the Minors in Spring Training.
The Tigers skipped him in the rotation last weekend for Max Scherzer, and team officials had to decide whether to keep him or Dontrelle Willis among the starting five. Galarraga's previous outing was a relief appearance last Saturday to help him get the feel for his slider.
Wednesday's outing raised a lot of questions around the game, but it answered a big one about Galarraga.
"I want to thank this whole organization for believing in me," he said.
By no means did the Tigers believe he could do something like this. If anyone had a chance to pitch a perfect game in Detroit, the first guess would be Justin Verlander, who threw a no-hitter in 2007. Scherzer might've entered the conversation after he struck out 14 batters over 5 2/3 innings Sunday.
By contrast, the Tigers were simply looking for quality outings from Galarraga. To get there, they were looking for strikes.
Galarraga's previous start was a May 22 loss at Dodger Stadium in which he paid for some hanging sliders that Leyland called "just spinning." He threw an extended side session in the bullpen a week ago at Seattle with a focus on improving his slider, his workhorse pitch, and his sinker.
Pitching coach Rick Knapp didn't know Galarraga had this good of stuff, but he knew he had something good going when he watched Galarraga warm up in the bullpen before Wednesday's game.
"He's the one who put the work in," Knapp said. "He's the one that did what was necessary. He took some small things that I told him and he worked them to the Nth degree."
Galarraga missed with his first two pitches of the night to rookie leadoff man Trevor Crowe. He didn't have another two-ball count until he had two outs in the fourth. He didn't face a three-ball count until Travis Hafner ran the count full leading off the fifth.
"He was just getting in a rhythm," rookie catcher Alex Avila said. "He was in a rhythm all game. You get that first-pitch strike and you can throw whatever you want up there. He did a great job today in that aspect."
Time and again, Galarraga had Indians hitters swinging at the pitches he wanted them to chase, and hitting them for outs. More often than not, they did it early in counts.
"My sinker and my fastball," Galarraga said. "I was just throwing fastball, fastball, fastball on the corners, corners, corners and it was moving really well."
Normally, that fastball hits 92-93 mph on the radar gun. Once Knapp saw 94 and 95 popping up on the Comerica Park scoreboard, he sensed something was special.
It caught the Indians completely by surprise.
"He established his fastball the first time through our order," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "After that, he started throwing that good slider that he has. I think our hitters were looking for that slider early in the game and never saw it until late. He did a good job keeping the ball down, every one of them, and made our guys pound the ball into the ground the whole night. He deserves a lot of credit."
The pitch counts were astounding -- nine in the opening inning, 10 each in the second, third and fifth, eight in the sixth and six in the seventh. Galarraga's high counts until the ninth were an 11-pitch fourth and eighth.
Face just 24 batters through eight innings, and the pitch count is going to be low. Still, Galarraga entered the ninth with just 75 pitches thrown.
By then, he was well aware of what was going on.
"Coming into the eighth, I got out of the inning really quick," Galararaga said. "I was like, 'You've got this.'"
He had plenty of time to himself to think about it in the dugout. He was at the far end; everybody else was closer to the stairs.
"Nobody talked to me," Galarraga said. "But you got the feeling everybody in the dugout was like, 'Leave him alone and let him do his thing he was doing every inning.'"
Galarraga went out for the ninth looking to do the same thing, get ahead in the count on Mark Grudzielanek. But the 38-year-old Grudzielanek surprised him by swinging at the first pitch and driving it to left-center field. What could've been a confidence-shatterer turned into a boost with Austin Jackson's over-the-shoulder catch.
"When Jackson made that play," Galarraga said, "I was like, 'Come on, Armando, finish what you start.' For myself, I know I finished."
Galarraga needed two outs for the first perfect game by a Tigers hurler, and the first for a Venezuelan-born player. Mike Redmond's grounder to short brought it down to one out.
Galarraga made a mad dash to first base to cover the bag when Miguel Cabrera ventured out to field Jason Donald's ground ball. When first-base umpire Jim Joyce ruled he didn't get to the bag in time, the emotion on Galarraga poured out.
"He was telling me that after the call he was so nervous over the last couple innings of the game that he didn't know how to react," Avila said.
Instead, he just smiled.
"I think it's a nervous thing," Galarraga said. "I'm so nervous, I smile. You see that play, I was nervous. I didn't know whether to smile or punch [Joyce]. It would be worse if I punched him, so I'm happy I smiled.
"I know nobody's perfect. What are you going to do? I was mad in the moment because I was nervous. I didn't know what to do. I was like celebrating. Then I looked at him."
Galarraga was emotionally numb, but he wasn't finished. He still had an out left to go, and he still had a shutout. Leyland had closer Jose Valverde warmed up, but he wouldn't have dared, not at that point.
Galarraga could've easily come apart after that. Instead, he threw five more pitches, got a groundout from Crowe, and got his win.
"I don't know what happened," Galarraga said. "I just threw one strike and a slider and something like that. I didn't even think. I just threw the ball and tried to get out of the game."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.