What is the most heartbreaking loss of perfection? Perfect games in baseball are rare and beautiful things. So much has to go right, and nothing can go wrong, for one team to keep the other from reaching first base through an entire game. It takes an unparalleled combination of luck and skill … not just from the pitcher, but all the fielders around him.
Sometimes teams come agonizingly close to perfection. There’s a walk or an error or a batter hit by a pitch that mars the perfect game. These games are heartbreaking for the team that just misses while, of course, they’re good for the other team because no team wants to be on that side of history.
The way I see it, there are three contenders for the most heartbreaking loss of a perfect game in MLB history
In 2010, there was Armando Galarraga’s near perfecto. In 2021, John Means lost one on a somewhat obscure rule. And in 2023, Drew Smyly lost one on a freak play. Let’s look at them in reverse order.
On April 21, 2023, Drew Smyly of the Cubs took a perfect game into the eighth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In that inning, David Peralta led off with a dribbler to the third base side of the pitcher’s mound. Smyly and the catcher, Yan Gomes, both tried to pounce on the ball. Smyly got there a fraction of a second earlier. Gomes tried to get out of the way by jumping over Smyly, but they collided and Smyly was not able to throw the ball to first. The perfect game and no-hitter were over.
This was particularly heartbreaking because both Smyly and Gomes were really hustling. They knew what was at stake and neither one wanted to ruin perfection. If only Gomes had peeled off earlier, Smyly could have made the play and kept the perfecto intact.
It’s less heartbreaking for two reasons. First, it was only the eighth inning, there’s no way to know if Smyly would have kept it together over the final two innings. Second, the swinging bunt play is really difficult for pitchers at the best of times. Who knows if Peralta would have been out even without the collision?
On May 5, 2021, John Means of the Orioles threw a no-hitter, faced only 27 batters, and there were no walks, errors, or batters hit by pitches. The fact that it wasn’t a perfect game seems inconceivable. However, in the third inning, Means threw a wild pitch on the third strike to the Mariners’ Sam Haggerty. Haggerty reached first base successfully on the dropped third strike rule. He was then thrown out trying to steal second.
This was heartbreaking because Means was one dropped third strike away from a perfect game. Most of the time, on a dropped third strike, the catcher completes the out by throwing to first. Not this time, though.
It’s less heartbreaking, again, for two reasons. First, it was only the third inning. At that point in a game, no one is even thinking perfect game. At the time of the play, it was just another play. There was little drama in it. Second, Means still got the no-hitter. That’s no easy feat, even in 2021
On June 2, 2010, Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers took a perfect game into the ninth inning. It was the top of the ninth, there were two outs, and the game was perfect. Galarraga was literally on the cusp of perfection, as close as a person can get. Then, Jason Donald of Cleveland swung the bat. The ball rolled towards Miguel Cabrera, the first baseman. Galarraga sprinted to first to cover. He got there ahead of the runner, there was a good feed from Cabrera, and Donald was out. It wasn’t even a close, bang-bang play. He was out. However, the first base umpire, Jim Joyce, who was an excellent umpire, called the runner safe. To say that everyone, Galarraga, the announcers, the fans, both teams, everyone was shocked would be the understatement of the century. Galarraga retired the next batter and wound up with only a complete game one-hitter.
This was obviously heartbreaking because, well, it needs no explanation. Top of the ninth, two out, 26 straight batters retired … and all ruined by a bad call on the 27th out. There are no mitigating factors in this game. It is simply, utterly heartbreaking.
Galarraga did handle the situation with as much grace as a person could. Plus, to his credit, once Jim Joyce realized his mistake, he apologized profusely. He was broken up about it.
So, we have a winner. Armando Galarraga’s near perfect game was the most heartbreaking. A perfect game broken up in the third inning was never really a perfect game. A perfect game broken up on a hit, albeit an unusual hit, a swinging bunt, hurts, but fluky things happen. That’s part of what makes baseball great. Losing a perfect game on an egregiously bad call, though. That just hits differently.