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The Pursuit of Perfection

You know things are strange when Greg Prince violates a baseball taboo.

The email arrived about midway through Bartolo Colon [1]‘s attempt at retiring 27 straight Seattle Mariners, with the subject line HERESY. “I’m not feeling more than minimally emotionally invested in Bartolo Colon’s particular effort today,” Greg wrote to me.

He didn’t spell out what that effort was, and he acknowledged still being superstitious, but this is asterisk stuff. Because there was the email, its subject matter very plain. And what did I do? I didn’t scream about jinxes and respect and losing one’s mind. Instead, I laughed. Because I was feeling the same way. I’d noticed that Colon hadn’t allowed a hit, walk, error or other imperfection, but I wasn’t glued to my iPad as he chased history. I was working, with somewhere between half an eye and one and a half eyes on the game.

Why the relative lack of psychic urgency on both our parts? I can think of a ton of reasons.

First of all, it’s Mets-Mariners, which is not the kind of thing that gets the blood pumping. It’s the stuff of shrugs and eye rolls.

Second, 3:30 pm for a midweek baseball game is just bizarre. My internal baseball clock is pretty well-calibrated, but it has no setting for 3:30 pm.

Third, it was so far away. We’ve joked in these parts about San Diego being West Kamchatka [2], but if so then Seattle is Ulan Bator. (Some disclosures of sorts: Seattle is lovely and you should visit, and the West Kamchatka joke’s on me since I’m heading to San Diego tomorrow morning.)

Fourth, no insult whatsoever to Colon, but he’s Matt Harvey [3]‘s understudy, brought in on an emergency basis with the understanding that we shouldn’t count on him seeing a second April 1 … or even a first September 1. “A perfect game would enhance Bartolo’s trade value,” I thought at one point, which should be horrifying but still strikes me as fairly sensible.

Anyway, when Colon got into the seventh my blood finally stirred to sluggish flow, because despite all of the above, wouldn’t that be a thing? A Mets perfect game? Or even a Mets no-hitter that would survive the age of instant replay? The combination of At Bat and my iPad left me about a minute behind game action, so I was hiding from Mets Twitter and getting impatient with At Bat’s freezes and dropouts, yet I was too superstitious to switch to a real TV.

Then Robinson Cano [4] lined a clean single to left and I thought, “Oh well.” Which is good — Johan Santana [5] cured Mets fandom of waiting to lament a terrible curse [6], leaving us free [7] to cheer for perfection because it’s kind of neat. Which is less epic but so much healthier. When Cano’s ball touched down, we all moved on — and being Mets fans, we were soon caught in the familiar trajectory that moves inexorably from WOW MAYBE PERFECT to OH NO A HIT to UGH WE COULD LOSE THIS ONE. (Happily, we didn’t [8].)

With Colon thwarted, the most compelling part of the game was watching the Mariners’ talented young hurler Taijuan Walker [9] go about his business. Walker is big and dripping with talent — he’s got a nice arsenal of pitches and natural movement. But he’s also raw — next time you grumble about Zack Wheeler [10], compare him with what you saw from Walker today. Walker has so much movement that he’d probably be better served trying to back off his adrenaline, throwing the ball down the middle of the plate and letting physics take care of the rest. But he can’t do that … maybe not ever, but certainly not yet. He was wild in the first, escaping with just one run surrendered, untouchable in the second and third, then wild again in the fourth. There are no guarantees in baseball, but sometimes you are pretty sure a young pitcher is going to come unglued again and stay that way. That’s what happened to Walker, in scary fashion: In the fifth, he cracked Ruben Tejada [11]‘s helmet with a fastball to the right of the NY decal, one that left Tejada dazed but one hopes unhurt. (A diagnosis the Mets should make very conservatively [12].) Walker clearly shied from throwing his fastball in anger after that and was gone after a sixth-inning meltdown.

Walker’s got a lot of talent. He doesn’t know what to do with it yet, which isn’t any kind of sin. Contrast him with Colon, who works with a much smaller arsenal but has learned how to make amazingly effective use of it, outfoxing hitters by joining pinpoint location with slight changes in fastball velocity. The difference? A big part of it is that Bartolo Colon is 41 and Taijuan Walker’s 21. Seriously — Colon signed a pro contract with the Indians when Taijuan Walker was a year old.

Pitching’s tough. It’s great to be given a lightning bolt for an arm, but it can be the work of a baseball lifetime learning how to use that weapon to perfection. Or near enough to perfection, anyway.