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Humbled by Humber, With No Sorry from Sori

Rafael Soriano remains a $35 million enigma. (AP)

I was in the cheap seats for Monday night's Yankees-White Sox game, and despite the fact that I've never seen a no-hitter in person — the closest I've ever come was none other than Bartolo Colon against the Yankees in 2000 — I wasn't too eager for Philip Humber to be my first. It was yet another instance of a relatively unproven and unfamiliar finesse pitcher befuddling the Bronx Bombers' bats, joining the likes of Bryan Bullington, Kyle Kendrick, Sean O’Sullivan, and Josh Tomlin, if not Jamie Moyer and Kevin Millwood. And it was maddening to watch. Don't the Yankees ever look at video of opposing pitchers they haven't faced before?

Now pitching for the fourth team of his major league career, the 28-year-old Humber was making just his sixth big league start; he came into the game having thrown just 76.2 career innings with a 4.58 ERA. Which isn't to say that he was entirely an unknown; chosen third in the 2004 draft by the Mets, he was one of three standout Rice University hurlers taken within that year's first eight picks, along with Jeff Niemann (Rays) and Wade Townsend (Orioles). Within two years of being drafted, all three had gone under the knife, adding to a long legacy of ex-Rice hurlers turning up lame. Humber and Townsend (who didn't sign with the Orioles but was taken eighth the following year by the Rays) both underwent Tommy John surgery, while Niemann needed arthroscopic shoulder surgery. Humber's other big claim to fame was as one of four players the Mets packaged to obtain Johan Santana from the Twins in February 2008, but he threw just 20.2 innings over two seasons before Minnesota gave him walking papers. He spent last year in the Royals organization, and parked on the A's roster for about 30 seconds before landing on the South Side of Chicago, where a strong spring training earned him a spot filling in for the injured Jake Peavy.

Humber had pitched to a 4.42 ERA through three starts (two quality) and two relief appearances prior to Monday, but he kept the Yankee hitters off balance with an 87-92 MPH four-seamer, curveball and changeup. He located his fastball well enough to get called strike threes on Mark Teixeira to end the first and Alex Rodriguez to start the second, and got swings and misses on his curve and changeup to whiff Jorge Posada and Russell Martin back-to-back in the third. Through six innings, he allowed just two baserunners, walking Curtis Granderson in the fourth and plunking Nick Swisher in the fifth; the latter was erased via a 3-6-3 double play, so he had faced just one more than the minimum through six.

With one out in the seventh and the crowd getting increasingly desperate for a hit, Teixeira walked, and then Rodriguez stroked a single up the middle for the Yankees' first hit. Humber, who had thrown 90 pitches to that point — four off his season high — was allowed to stay in the game to protect the bare 1-0 lead. He whiffed Robinson Cano on a high 89 MPH four-seamer, then induced Swisher to ground out to first baseman Paul Konerko, ending his night at 100 pitches.

Humber's effort overshadowed a fine one by A.J. Burnett, who became just the second Yankee starter to last more than seven innings this season, though it certainly helped that he was facing a White Sox team amid a 1-10 slide, one that hadn't scored a single run since Friday. Aside from a 27-pitch second inning in which he walked Konerko and yielded a single to the struggling Adam Dunn, Burnett was extremely efficient, needing 18 or fewer pitches in every other inning, 11 or less in four of them. The lone run he allowed came in the fourth, when Granderson took an ill-advised dive for a Carlos Quentin blooper, which scooted past him and turned into a double. Consecutive groundouts by Konerko and Dunn, which would have been otherwise innocuous, brought Quentin around, and that was the game's lone run until the ninth inning. On any other night, Burnett's effort would have been the lead story of the game, but on this one, it was little more than a footnote.

The ninth was almost as frustrating as the first eight innings combined; it was one thing to witness a well-pitched game in which the Yankees simply couldn't put a run across, another to watch them fall apart. At the center of the destruction was Rafael Soriano, who had been unavailable just a day earlier due to tightness in his back, and who hadn't pitched since April 20. Facing Alexi Ramirez to open the ninth, Soriano yielded a popup into no-man's land, a ball that landed about five feet beyond the mound and slightly to the left of second base for a leadoff single. Neither Derek Jeter, who got a late break, nor Cano, who was on the wrong side of the infield, had any chance to reach the ball; if anyone was going to get to it, it was the pitcher, whose follow-through positioned him at the diametrically opposite point on the mound. The Yankees avoided the blame game regarding the popup, but also avoided accountability:

"Do you think I could catch that?" Soriano said. "I don't think so. ... I thought somebody would be there. I thought Jeter or Alex [Rodriguez] was going to catch it."

"A little bloop — landed right behind the mound," Jeter said. "Not much you could do about it."

Yankees manager Joe Girardi concurred with his captain, opining that the only player who had a fair shot at the ball was Soriano.

..."I don't think Jeet could have got to it; I don't think Al [could have]," Girardi said. "We encourage our pitchers to go after it, and sometimes pitchers just don't.

"It's on the other side of the mound. It's a pretty well-placed soft popup. Sori is probably the only guy that could have got it, and I'm not sure he would have, either."

In any event, that wasn't the crippling blow. Ramirez was erased when Carlos Quentin hit into a forceout, with pinch-runner Brent Lillibridge subseequently stealing second. Soriano got ahead 0-2 on Konerko, one of the only Sox hitters who's been productive lately. Alas, he couldn't get him to chase three pitches that were well outside the zone, two sliders low and away and then a cutter inside. Soriano brought his sixth pitch of the at-bat, yet another slider, into the strike zone, and Konerko lined it to left field, where Eduardo Nunez, who had entered the game as a pinch-runner, was making his first major league appearance. Looking nothing like a strong-armed shortstop, Nunez let loose a throw which would have embarrassed Johnny Damon, one which sputtered back to the infield, leaving no chance to get Lillibridge at home.

The Yankees had their chances to knot the game in the eighth and ninth. With two out in the eighth, pinch-hitter Eric Chavez singled, only to have Jeter line a comebacker to ex-infielder-turned-closer Sergio Santos, who had just entered the game. In the next frame, Granderson led off with a single, but Teixeira grounded into the White Sox second 3-6-3 double play of the night, and A-Rod went down swinging.

In the end, Soriano was the only real black mark of the night, and he remains something of a troublemaker in the Yankee bullpen. He has now surrendered 10 hits and seven walks in 9.1 innings. The seven runs those have amounted to have come in bunches; Monday was just the third of 10 appearances in which he's been scored upon. Nonetheless, his inability to find the strike zone consistently has been disconcerting; he has walked a hitter in four of his last five appearances, and now has more walks than strikeouts (six). For the season, only eight percent of his pitches are resulting in swinging strikes, down from 11.7 percent last year, and 12.2 percent for his career.

There's not a lot more to take from Soriano's small sample of stats (SSSS), other than their accompaniment by the anecdotal reports of his struggles in cold weather and his recent bout of back tightness. "He lacks the setup guy mentality," I joked on Twitter, an absurd notion given that until 2009, most of his injury-pocked career had been as a setup guy. I was only slightly more serious when I suggested he opt out of his contract immediately.

It was just that kind of night in the Bronx.