Milt Wilcox hung up his glove for good nearly 30 years ago, and the former Major League pitcher doesn’t watch much baseball these days. But every now and then, he’ll turn on ESPN and notice an on-screen alert: A pitcher is just a few outs away from a perfect game. Almost inevitably, he will tune in.
June 20 was one of those days. Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer was one out away from perfection, the same place that Wilcox, who pitched 16 seasons in the majors, had once been three decades ago. Scherzer let loose a two-strike slider that started at Pittsburgh Pirates pinch-hitter Jose Tabata’s hands. It was supposed to snap back across the inside corner of home plate, but it spun and hung just slightly. Instead of falling into catcher Wilson Ramos’ glove, it glanced off Tabata’s elbow.
Scherzer, off to the side of the mound, tossed his head back in disbelief. Twenty-six hitters, 26 outs. The 27th jogged past him on his way to first.
Max Scherzer hits Jose Tabata with two outs in the ninth inning, spoiling a perfect game.
A perfect game -- 27 hitters up, 27 down, none of them reaching first base safely -- is one of the sport’s rarest feats. There have been just 21 in Major League Baseball’s modern era, an average of one every five years since Cy Young threw the first of them in 1904. They require a dialed-in pitcher, stellar (and at times spectacular) defense and a little luck. They are an arbitrary occurrence, a feat accomplished by baseball royalty -- Young, Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax, three of the best pitchers to ever hold a ball, have thrown them -- and baseball afterthoughts -- Phil Humber, Len Barker and Charlie Robertson all ended their careers with perfect games and losing records.
By hitting Tabata, Scherzer earned his membership into an even more exclusive club. For just the 13th time in Major League history (though, oddly, the fourth time since 2010), a pitcher lost a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning.
Milt Wilcox is one of them. And if his recollection of the night he nearly wrote his name into baseball's record books is any indication, Scherzer won’t soon forget the moment when he fell just shy of perfection.
Wilcox took the mound on April 15, 1983, for his second start of the year for the Detroit Tigers, and right away, something felt different.
“I knew what I’d throw and what it would do, what would happen,” Wilcox said. “Everything was rolling.”
He retired 26 straight Chicago White Sox batters before pinch-hitter Jerry Hairston Sr. came to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The Tigers had a 6-0 lead (coincidentally, the same lead Scherzer later had), and while Hairston would go on to have the most successful offensive season of his career in 1983, he looked at this moment like a sacrificial lamb. Seven games into the young season, Hairston hadn’t yet notched a hit.
It took one pitch to get his first. Wilcox grimaced on the mound.
Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell calls the final inning of Wilcox's near perfect game.
Thirty-two years later, the pitcher can describe the moment in vivid detail.
The Tigers were on the road, but he remembers the roar as the Chicago crowd rose to its feet and gave him a thunderous ovation while Hairston dug in to the left-handed box. Crowd noise normally sounded like nothing more than a dull buzz when Wilcox was in a groove, but now it filled his ears. He stepped off the mound to gather himself, a moment he says broke his concentration. He looked back in for catcher Lance Parrish’s sign.
“My catcher wanted me to throw a split fastball,” he said. “I knew this guy was a first-pitch fastball hitter, but my control was perfect. I was going to run it in on his hands.”
He remembers what happened next.
“It sailed out over the plate,” Wilcox said.
He heard the crack and turned to see the ball skip into the centerfield grass.
“It was a good hard single,” he said.
He got the next hitter, bringing the game to an unceremonious end, Hairston’s hit making Wilcox the answer to an obscure trivia question instead of a major piece of baseball history.
Milt Wilcox pitching for the Detroit Tigers. (Jim Wilkes/Getty)
When Wilcox looks back to his baseball days, his flirtation with perfection doesn’t necessarily stand out. He’s more likely to think about what came next. The Tigers won the World Series in 1984, and the game of his life as a pitcher, Wilcox said, was his victory over the Kansas City Royals in that year’s American League playoffs. His stuff was even better that night, when he allowed just two hits over eight scoreless innings in the series-clinching win.
“It would have been nice to have,” he said matter-of-factly of the perfect game, but losing it didn’t gut him. For the most part, the only time he thinks about it now is when the occasional reporter “calls to remind me of it.”
Though social media erupted after Scherzer hit Tabata, debating whether the hitter had leaned into the pitch, the Nationals ace struck a tone similar to that of Wilcox after the game. He didn’t blame Tabata and was “pretty happy” with his performance.
Of course, with Tabata on first, Scherzer got Josh Harrison to fly out to seal his no-hitter, a feat that while more common than perfection is still rare. He avoided the fates of Shelby Miller and Carlos Corrasco, two pitchers who this season lost their own no-hit bids on the final out of the game, adding their names to the list of 52 otherswho have done the same.
Scherzer, remarkably, lost perfect games after the sixth inning in three consecutive starts, but he can take solace at least in the fact that Mike Mussina, the former Baltimore Oriole and New York Yankee, twice lost perfect games in the ninth inning. The no-hitter against Pittsburgh, according to advanced metrics, wasn’t even Scherzer’s best performance of the season (that was a win over Milwaukee a week earlier).
But at some point in the future, perhaps long after his career is over, he’ll no doubt think about what it might have felt like had that slider snapped the way it should have, had Tabata’s elbow not been there, had the ball found Ramos’ mitt and had umpire Mike Muchlinski called it strike three.
That moment hit Wilcox a decade ago. After leaving baseball, Wilcox started putting on competitions for “air dogs,” retrievers that sprint down docks and splash into water below after jumping as far as they can. His wife met him long after his baseball career ended, but while digging around, she learned of the spring night in 1983 when Milt Wilcox was damn near perfect. She found a video of the game, and they watched it together.
“I had never seen that pitch,” Wilcox said. “I sat down to watch it, and everything came back.”
He noticed something that was a blur while he was on the mound. He had always thought Hairston’s single went over Lou Whitaker’s head, but in the replay, he saw that it was a groundball that skipped just to the second baseman’s right instead.
“You start thinking,” he said. “Had it been inside just a quarter-inch more, it’d have gone right to the second baseman.”
Milt Wilcox pitching against the Kansas City Royals in the 1984 American League playoffs. (AP)