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With perfection behind him, Humber ready for new start

With perfection behind him, Humber ready for new start

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- It's part of his legacy and will be forever. Maybe Philip Humber goes on and does greater things in life and in baseball than what he accomplished on that April afternoon a year ago when he could do no wrong. Or perhaps it will be the moment that defines his career.

This much he knows. Humber will forever be linked to greatness, attached to perfection in a way only a handful of men can ever say. He embraces and understands the attention that comes with sending down 27 batters in a row, but at the same time eager for the challenges ahead.

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Humber, claimed off waivers from the White Sox by the Astros and signed to a one-year contract, still smiles when he talks about April 21, 2012. That's when he threw the 21st perfect game in the history of baseball, beating the Seattle Mariners and etching his place in history.

"It's just one game," Humber said. "It was an awesome day and an awesome thing to experience with my teammates and enjoy that and all the things that came with it. But at the same time, I don't look back at [that any more than] other things I've done in my career."

Humber's season, highlighted by the perfect game in his second start of the year, was anything but perfect. He was rocked for nine earned runs over five innings in his start following the perfect game, beginning a stretch when he went 4-5 with a 7.21 ERA in 14 starts.

There was a stint on the disabled list with a right elbow flexor strain and he ended the season pitching out of the bullpen while the White Sox's playoff hopes fizzled. But Humber managed to salvage something positive in the post-perfect game rubble.

In breaking down what happened, Humber says simply that he wasn't making quality pitches. He thinks he may have been putting too much pressure on himself.

"I've never had a problem working physically," he said. "Sometimes I can be too hard on myself mentally. I like to use last year to kind of help me understand I've got to enjoy the game and go out there and have fun and not put so much pressure on myself."

That's hard to do following perfection. The attention of the baseball world was on him for several days, and he met people and did things the quiet East Texas kid never thought possible. He read the Top 10 list on the "Late Show with David Letterman," and he got a phone call from President Obama.

"There were a lot of things that came along with that perfect game I wasn't used to," he said. "When we get put in situations that are uncomfortable for us or not routine, sometimes that brings out some things you didn't know were there. I obviously was not approaching the game the right way, otherwise it wouldn't have affected me the way that it did.

"It's a learning experience. As a result, I think I can use that bad experience and turn it into something good. That's what I'm hoping to get out of it, the fact it didn't go the way I wanted it to, and I can learn from it and be better for it."

Less than 10 months after the perfect game, Humber is as content as he's ever been. He's back in Texas with the Astros and playing in the city where he won the 2003 College World Series championship at Rice. He's in a clubhouse of younger, eager faces, all looking for fresh starts.

Humber, 30, is among a handful of pitchers vying for the final two spots in the starting rotation.

"It's opportunity, and it's all about performance," he said "They're going to take the best guys here when the season opens, and so I know I've prepared myself and I know I'm capable of doing that. It's a matter of putting it on the field. I'm looking forward to getting that opportunity and getting out there to show them what I can do. I have a lot of new eyes on me. I know that there's some things I've gotten better at, and I'm excited to show people."

Even in his new surroundings in Houston, Humber was quickly reminded of the perfect game. Astros manager Bo Porter arranged to have Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who caught Humber that day, call from Arizona on Thursday morning while the team was giving him a sparkling cider toast.

His alma mater, Rice University, unveiled a plaque Thursday at Reckling Park commemorating the game, with the complete text of an e-mail Humber sent to legendary Rice coach Wayne Graham thanking him for being an influence. Graham and his players watched the final few outs of Humber's perfect game live in their clubhouse following a win.

"We're very proud for him," Graham said. "I hope he can get on with the Astros and get in the rotation and have a long career."

The group of players who have thrown perfect games grew by three last year, with Humber leading the way. San Francisco's Matt Cain threw a perfect game against the Astros on June 13, and Seattle's Felix Hernandez did it against Tampa Bay on Aug. 15.

Humber still takes pride that only 23 players have thrown a perfect game. No matter what happens the rest of his career, he'll always have that day.

"As small as the group is, when you have three guys throw it one year it adds to those numbers pretty fast," he said. "It's still a pretty small fraternity and it's cool that [Astros bullpen coach] Dennis Martinez is here with the Astros, and so we kind of share that a little bit. It's a small club. I don't know why three happened last year, but I'm just glad I was one of them."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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