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Today in Baseball History: Len Barker throws a perfect game

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Baseball in Cleveland in the 1980s was a pretty dreary affair.

The Indians finished .500 or better just twice that decade. They would complete their 26th through their 35th straight seasons without a postseason appearance (that streak would go to 41 before they won the AL pennant in 1995). While they got some decent seasons that decade from the likes of Toby Harrah, Mike Hargrove, Joe Carter, Bert Blyleven and Brett Butler — and while they got a here-today-gone-tomorrow star turn from a kid named Joe Charboneau — it was not a star-studded decade either.

Arguably the club’s greatest highlight of the entire decade took place on this day in 1981. That’s when Indians starter Len Barker tossed a perfect game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Municipal Stadium.

Barker, who was 25 at the time, was tall — 6’4″ — and had consistent mid-90s gas, which was fairly rare in baseball in those days. He had won 19 games for a sixth place Indians team the year before and had led the American League in strikeouts. That was a bit deceptive, however, as his ERA was an unremarkable 4.17 (99 ERA+) and he had also led the league in wild pitches.

Those wild pitches in 1980 were no fluke. Barker was a wild guy who sometimes put it together and sometimes didn’t. When he had it, he was great. Indeed, he had flirted with two no-hitters in 1980 before they were broken up late. When he didn’t have it, however, he might throw the ball over the backstop. Which he had actually done once in Boston in 1978. At the time he told the press when he was in the Instructional League a pitch slipped and he threw it over the press box.

It was cold in Cleveland on the night of Friday May 15, 1981 — 49 degrees and drizzling at first pitch — but Barker was riding one of his hot streaks. While he gave up five runs in six and a third in his first start of the season on April 15 he had tossed a seven-hit shutout against the Royals on April 22. He followed that up by allowing one run in a complete game victory over the White Sox on May 2 and and allowed one run over eight in a no-decision on May 9. The cold early season weather and having a lot of extra rest between starts was definitely helping him out.

Only 7,290 fans paid to get in to see the Tribe take on the visiting Blue Jays that evening and many of them were disguised as empty seats. A lot of the Blue Jays hitters probably wished they were somewhere else too, but it’s not like they were likely to have a ton of success no matter who they faced. Toronto was the weakest-hitting club in the major leagues heading into that game, with a team batting average of .218. They had suffered 21 straight scoreless innings entering the game as well. They had also struggled against the Indians already, with new Indians ace Bert Blyleven having taken a no-hitter into the ninth inning against Toronto only nine days earlier. Between Barker’s heat, the cold weather, and the cold Blue Jays’ bats, things were lining up pretty good for the Indians’ pitcher that evening.

The legendary Dave Duncan, then the Indians pitching coach, told Sports Illustrated at the time that he felt like something special was going to happen based on what he saw from Barker in the bullpen before the game. The heat was there as it always was, but Barker’s curveball looked better than ever. “He started out slow,” Duncan said, “but as he went along, his curve-ball got better and better. It became awesome. It wasn’t breaking much, but the rotation was so tight it was almost the perfect curve.”

The perfect game was almost over on the first play of the game when Toronto’s speedy infielder, Alfredo Griffin, hit a slow roller that died between the mound and second base. Cleveland shortstop Tom Veryzer made a slick play on the ball, however, fielded it behind the mound and threw it to first to get Griffin. Barker then retired Lloyd Moseby and George Bell to end the first.

In the second inning Cleveland centerfielder Rick Manning had to make a long run to haul in a sinking liner off the bat of Damaso Garcia. That was the pattern through the first three innings, in fact — atom balls — as Barker was, intentionally or not, pitching to contact. Indeed, the reigning AL strikeout king didn’t fan a single batter until the fourth inning.

If those lack of strikeouts was because of something lacking in his fastball that night, Barker and his catcher Ron Hassey figured it out by the fourth inning. That’s when Barker basically switched to all curveballs, tossing just 17 fastballs after the fourth. He struck out 11 batters — all swinging — between the fourth and the ninth and didn’t go to a single three-ball count. Only eight Toronto batters got as much as a two-ball count. He ended up only needing 103 pitches in the entire game. Hassey, speaking to Sports Illustrated in 1981: “By the fifth inning his breaking ball was so good we figured that’s what we’d pretty much stay with. By the ninth inning we decided if there was going to be a base hit, it would have to come off a breaking pitch.”

His defense continued to help him as well. Third Baseman Toby Harrah dove into the stands to catch a Willie Upshaw foul pop in the fifth. Second Baseman Duane Kuiper went to his right to handle a short-hop line drive off the bat of Rick Bosetti in the sixth, then ranged far to his left to field a bouncer off of Griffin’s bat in the seventh just barely throwing him out.

Barker would later admit that while he was cruising in innings one through eight, he began to feel the pressure in the ninth.

“I was so nervous at the end that I dropped the ball on the mound one time. My stomach was a wreck,” he told Sports Illustrated. Also in the ninth, whoever was operating the Municipal Stadium scoreboard flashed a trivia tidbit about how the Blue Jays were one of only two teams in all of baseball who had never been no-hit.  “I thought we had him in the ninth,” Toronto pitcher Mark Bomback would later say. He noticed Barker drop the ball and said, “he was so nervous. Then when they flashed the trivia question [on the scoreboard], I was sure he was jinxed.”

Barker hung a curveball — one of his only bad pitches of the night — to Bosetti to lead off the ninth, but Bosetti only got a piece of it and fouled out. Then Al Woods, batting for Danny Ainge — yes, that Danny Ainge — struck out on three pitches. Finally another pinch hitter, Ernie Whitt, lofted a fly ball to center that Rick Manning caught for the final out.

Perfection achieved.

It was the first perfect game in the majors since Catfish Hunter, then of the Oakland A’s, beat the Minnesota Twins on May 8, 1968. That also meant it was the first perfect game against a lineup with a DH. The 1981 Blue Jays may have had a lot of easy outs in that lineup, but they had no easy-out pitchers.

Barker would go on to have a 1981 season that looked a lot like his 1980 season in a lot of ways. He’d have a few bumpy starts after the perfecto, but after the seven-week players’ strike his early season dominance helped him make the All-Star team that year. He again led the AL in strikeouts and again had a sub-100 ERA+. Overall his 1982 season was probably his best, when he went 15-11 with a 3.90 ERA (106 ERA+).

After a rough start to the 1983 season, Barker was involved in a trade that would end up being his second-biggest claim to fame, primarily because of how lopsided the deal was. On August 28 Ted Turner and the Braves, who were fighting to win a second straight NL West crown, acquired him for Brett Butler, Brook Jacoby, and Rick Behenna. Butler would go on to star for the Indians, Giants, and Dodgers over the course of a 17-year career that would not end until 1997. Jacoby would be a two-time All-Star who would hit 120 homers in an Indians jersey.

Barker, however, basically flamed out. From 1983 through 1987 he posted a 4.88 ERA while going 20-34. He made out financially, however. Barker was a rental in 1983, poised to hit free agency, but the Braves signed him to a $4 million contract before the 1984 season. That didn’t pan out for them, and they released him before the 1986 season. He’d spend that season as a minor leaguer in the Expos system. He last pitched in the majors for the Brewers in 1987, working in 11 games.

But he’ll always have that perfect game.

Rays beat Mets 8-5, clinch 1st AL East title in 10 years

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK — Confetti instead of champagne. Silly string instead of beer.

The Tampa Bay Rays, long accustomed to doing more with less, figured out a way to maximize the division-clinching celebration they were allowed to enjoy during a 2020 season shortened by the coronavirus.

Randy Arozarena homered twice and the Rays clinched their first AL East title in 10 years Wednesday night with an 8-5 victory over the New York Mets.

“I’m completely dry right now, which I’m not a huge fan of,” center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Rays player, said with a grin. “But you have to adapt to what we’re asked of.”

With teams instructed to celebrate in a muted and socially distant style, the Rays went old school – or maybe elementary school – with their clinching party.

The team filed slowly onto the field after Nick Anderson fanned Andres Gimenez for the final out. A couple of players shot off canisters filled with confetti that eventually dotted the grass and dirt at Citi Field. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged before the Rays doused one another with silly string and lit some cigars in the visiting clubhouse.

Later, hooting and hollering could be heard from the visitors’ dugout.

“We’re little kids trapped in grown men’s bodies,” Kiermaier said.

Joey Wendle and Brandon Lowe also went deep for the Rays to back Tyler Glasnow‘s six solid innings. Tampa Bay will be home at quirky Tropicana Field for a best-of-three first-round playoff series beginning next Tuesday.

It is the third division crown for the thrifty Rays, whose payroll this season is just over $28 million – more than only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles. Tampa Bay, which began play in 1998, also won the AL East, home of two big-spending powers in the Yankees and Red Sox, in 2008 and 2010.

“It feels great to win the division, no matter what division you’re in,” Kiermaier said. “But especially the American League East – it’s just a different animal.”

After missing a chance to clinch Tuesday, the Rays went into Wednesday again needing just a win or a Yankees loss against Toronto to lock up the division championship.

The Rays (37-20) broke a 2-all tie in the sixth on Arozarena’s two-run homer off Michael Wacha and pulled away, taking care of business themselves while New York was routed 14-1 by the Blue Jays.

“At the end of the day, a clinch is a clinch,” said Wendle, who homered in the second. “But to do it on a win – everybody’s kind of riding the high of winning the game along with the division. We didn’t want to see it come down to them losing a game.”

Tampa Bay also is closing in on wrapping up the top record in the AL and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

Lowe, who had an RBI fielder’s choice in the third, hit a two-run homer in the eighth. Willy Adames added an RBI single later in the inning and Arozarena homered again in the ninth.

The insurance came in handy for the Rays when the Mets scored three times off Oliver Drake in the ninth – via an RBI groundout by Robinson Cano and a two-run homer by Todd Frazier – before Anderson closed the door.

“I think we had the game pretty much in control (and) certainly recognized what was going on in Buffalo, but I don’t know if you can ever prepare for a moment like that – it’s pretty special,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

Glasnow (5-1) allowed two runs on three hits and one walk with eight strikeouts.

Gimenez and Dominic Smith homered off Glasnow in the final home game of the season for the Mets, whose long-shot playoff hopes were further damaged with the loss. New York began the day 2 1/2 games out of an NL wild-card spot.

“We still have a shot with the four games left and we’re competing,” manager Luis Rojas said. “We’ve just got to do what we do – just keep fighting like we did in the ninth.”

Wacha allowed four runs on six hits and struck out four in six innings.

STABLE SHIRT

Rays pitcher Charlie Morton sported a T-shirt picturing a stable of horses as he spoke with reporters during a pregame Zoom call. Morton did little to discourage the notion the shirt was inspired by Cash’s viral rant earlier this month, when he declared the Rays have “a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph” after Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman threw near Mike Brousseau’s head in the ninth inning Sept. 4.

“The stable shirt?” Morton said. “It was in my locker last week and I like horses.”

With a grin obviously growing even behind his Rays mask, Morton said he rode horses as a kid.

“So I was ecstatic to see this shirt in my locker and I wore it,” he said.

As for the fireballers on the Rays’ pitching staff?

“We’ve got some guys that throw really hard,” Morton said.

ANOTHER LOSING SEASON

The loss guaranteed the Mets (25-31) will finish with a sub-.500 record for the ninth time in the last 12 seasons – a total matched or exceeded only by the Chicago White Sox (nine), Miami Marlins (10) and San Diego Padres (10). The White Sox and Padres have already clinched playoff spots and a winning record, while the Marlins are in second place in the NL East.

New York made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons in 2015 and 2016 and went 86-76 last year.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Rays: LHP Jose Alvarado (shoulder, lat) is scheduled to throw batting practice to 3B Yandy Diaz (hamstring) and 1B Ji-Man Choi (hamstring) at Tropicana Field on Thursday. Cash said all three players are progressing and he hopes they are available for the playoffs. . Brousseau (oblique) missed a fourth consecutive game. Cash said he would have been available off the bench if needed

Mets: RF Michael Conforto (hamstring) returned to the lineup as the designated hitter after missing two games and went 0 for 4. . The Mets activated RHP Dellin Betances (lat), who last pitched Aug. 29, and optioned RHP Corey Oswalt to the alternate site.

UP NEXT

Rays: After a day off Thursday, Morton (2-2, 4.64 ERA) is scheduled to get his postseason tuneup in the opener of a series against the Phillies on Friday.

Mets: Rookie LHP David Peterson (5-2, 3.80 ERA) opens a four-game road series against the Nationals. Peterson struck out a career-high 10 against the Braves last Saturday.