Perfection is a truly elusive quality in baseball, but for Buehrle in this instance, it was just an extension of what he normally does. His control is typically precise; he changes speeds and locations, consistently confounding the opposition. He embodies the whole definition of the crafty left-hander. Thursday, he took this same ability, this same approach, and stretched it, from exceptional to perfect.
He needed one astounding catch, one truly memorable play to preserve the perfect game. That came against the first hitter of the ninth inning. The game was in hand, the White Sox holding a 5-0 lead, so the drama of the perfect game had center stage all to itself. Gabe Kapler hit a drive to deep center that appeared to be on the way to ending not only the perfect game, but also the no-hitter and the shutout.
But Dewayne Wise sprinted back to the wall, made a perfectly timed leap, took the home run away from Kapler and kept the perfect game intact for Buehrle. Under any circumstances, this would have been a terrific catch, but under these circumstances, it was a play for the ages.
Asked in a postgame interview if he owed Wise a steak dinner, Buehrle responded: "I think I owe him a lot more than that."
An assist also goes to White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who had inserted Wise in the game in the ninth as a defensive replacement. Initially, that was a sound managerial move, but in this case, it ended up looking like a work of genius.
But obviously this achievement comes back to Buehrle, who has been so good for so long. This kind of domination was not unknown to him. He had already pitched a no-hitter in April 2007, against the Rangers, a team with an imposing lineup. Here the perfect game also came against a truly difficult lineup. The Rays, a World Series team last season, came to this game ranked third in the American League in runs scored. This is a team that can win with power or speed. It can clobber the ball, or it can play small ball. But here, against Buehrle, it could do absolutely nothing at all.
What works so well for Buehrle might also be a factor in keeping him from being universally acknowledged as one of the absolute best in the game in this century. Pitching is a craft with him. His work is about command, guile, pitching intelligence. The big heat -- the velocity pushing three figures, the fastball that intimidates the opposition and stirs the imagination -- is not part of his game.
If Buehrle's game is more subtle than that, there is nothing marginal about the quality of his work. He is durable, he is reliable, he is successful. In his eight full seasons before this year, he never made fewer than 30 starts. He never pitched fewer than 201 innings, and he worked 220 innings or more in five straight seasons.
He won 19 games in one season. He won 16 in three others. He has had only one losing season in his career, and that was just one game under .500. In 1,982 innings he has walked only 451 hitters. This year, at 11-3 just after the All-Star break, he has a legitimate chance to win 20 for the first time.
And he is only 30 years old. The way he pitches, not relying on power, he could conceivably perform at this same level for years to come.
He was a very popular figure in the world of the White Sox long before this perfect game arrived. He is even fully appreciated by the people who write baseball for a living. If you've got a tight deadline, and you almost always do, there is no one you want on the mound more than Mark Buehrle. He will throw strikes, he will pitch to contact, he will keep up a brisk pace and he will do his best to make sure that pace of the game is not an issue with any of his outings.
No, this is not Sandy Koufax in his prime, but then, neither is anyone else. But the perfect game, achieved only 18 times in the long history of Major League Baseball, is a fitting achievement for Mark Buehrle. Anything that shines more light on this remarkable career is fine, but this afternoon of pitching perfection is both tremendous and richly deserved.