Karstens' poise brings taste of perfection

Pirates' new pitcher gives up hit in 8th, but blanks Arizona, 2-0

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PHOENIX -- The cameras and microphones had just backed away, and Jeff Karstens sat at his stall, the arm still wrapped in ice, the iPhone vibrating up a storm in the background. And he confessed he had no clue what had just happened to him.

"To be honest," he said after a deep breath, "I'm just trying to let some of it sink in."

Good luck with that.

All Karstens achieved on this unforgettable afternoon yesterday inside Chase Field was perhaps one of the greatest pitching performances in the Pittsburgh Baseball Club's 122-year history, carrying a perfect game through 7 2/3 innings and, ultimately, shutting out the Arizona Diamondbacks, 2-0, on two hits and a walk.

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Chris Young's two-out double into the left-field corner ended the perfection.

"He was outstanding," manager John Russell said.

"Unbelievable," center fielder Jason Michaels said. "From where I was watching, there might have been no more than five times where he threw right over the middle of the plate."

Only 17 pitchers in Major League Baseball history have thrown a perfect game, none since Randy Johnson, Karstens' mound opponent for the day, did it May 18, 2004. No one with the Pirates has pitched a perfect game, though historians award an honorable mention to Harvey Haddix's going 12 perfect innings May 26, 1959, only to lose in the 13th.

Karstens seemed an odd fit for such company, to say the least.

He is a 25-year-old right-hander with fairly ordinary stuff, and he had spent all season with the New York Yankees' Class AAA affiliate until being acquired by the Pirates in the Xavier Nady-Damaso Marte trade two weeks ago. His resume: 11 career starts and six relief appearances in the majors, and an ordinary 44-31 record in the minors.

But there he was, pounding catcher Raul Chavez's unmoving mitt relentlessly with a fastball generally clocked at 91 mph -- 72 of 113 pitches were in the zone -- while he struck out four, walked one and reached a three-ball count to just four batters.

Why so little offspeed?

"Because I knew they'd watch tape of what I did in Chicago," Karstens said.

That was his Pirates debut Friday at Wrigley Field, when he pitched six innings of a 3-0 shutout of the Cubs. And yes, the Diamondbacks did watch that tape, as well as other material from the minors. But that did little to prepare them for his early repertoire.

"He mixed it up and threw us a bunch of fastballs early on," Arizona manager Bob Melvin said. "And we're a pretty good fastball-hitting team."

"The big thing was the control," Chavez said. "I knew he had all the offspeed stuff that he showed the Cubs, but I didn't know he could locate his fastball like that."

Totals since arriving: Fifteen innings, zero runs, seven hits.

"It goes to show what you can do with three or four pitches, if you throw strikes and go right after guys," first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "Hopefully, some other guys in this room will pay attention to that."

Karstens entered the bottom of the eighth with the Pirates ahead, 2-0 -- Freddy Sanchez had homered off Johnson in the fourth, Mientkiewicz an RBI double in the top of the eighth -- and without a blemish. This despite several early balls plenty hard to the warning tracks of Chase's ultra-deep center field.

"Got a little bit of a workout out there," Michaels said.

"After the first inning, I thought it was going to be a long day," Karstens said. "I was lucky it's a big park, and I had J-Mike out there running them down."

The highlight in that span came in the seventh, when Orlando Hudson worked the count full, but Karstens nailed Chavez's mitt with an up-and-away fastball that Hudson chased.

Still, there was no show of emotion. Head down, head to the dugout.

"I was taught never to give in," Karstens said. "When you show emotion, the other team feeds off it."

Not from the remarkably even-keeled Karstens -- on and off the field -- and not from anyone other than a few fidgeting infielders. The Pirates' dugout, by this point, had established a routine where all of the coaches and non-starters for the day were standing on the top step of the dugout, none of them moving from their assigned spots.

Russell, too.

"I wasn't going to move for anything," he said.

Karstens got two quick outs to open the bottom half, a Chad Tracy flyout, and a groundout to third that Chris Gomez momentarily bobbled. That was 23 up, 23 down.

Young was next, and he took the first two pitches, one for a strike. But Karstens' next offering, a slider -- "More of a cement mixer," he said with a laugh -- was lined well over Gomez's head and into the left-field corner for a double.

"It was a quick head-jerk, and then, I thought, 'All right, we've got two outs. Let's go,' " Karstens said.

He promptly got Alex Romero for the third out.

"That showed me something right there," Russell said.

Karstens was back out for the ninth and walked Augie Ojeda, but Tony Clark bounced into a 1-6-3 double play -- one that required good footwork by Karstens -- and, after Stephen Drew got the second hit, Mientkiewicz made a fine play on Orlando Hudson's grounder to end it.

Johnson, who also pitched quite well in limiting the Pirates to two runs over 7 1/3 innings, knew Karstens from their common time with the Yankees.

"Jeff pitched an outstanding game, almost perfect," Johnson said. "He opened a lot of eyes."

All that, and there was this tidbit: Karstens got his first two major league hits off Johnson.

Ask pitching coach Jeff Andrews, and he will say that and the approach on the mound are interwoven.

"He was standing at the plate, not intimidated by Randy Johnson anymore than he was intimidated on the mound," Andrews said. "He goes right after guys. He's not afraid. Even after the way those first couple innings went, what did you see him do? He just kept pitching."

There was one downside to those hits, though: Chavez paid a visit during that hairy ninth and, in his words, "I wanted to know why he was nervous, finally. Why was he tired?"

"I told him I was tired from running the bases," Karstens recalled.

And how might he feel after checking all those messages and hearing and reading about his performance?

"This game has a lot of ups and downs. Right now, I'll take the ups. I'm going to have fun with this, have fun on the ride to Philadelphia with the team and go from there."

The Pirates' four-game losing streak ended.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com. First Published August 7, 2008 4:00 AM


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