Baseball’s pundits and statistics gurus are already asking whether Matt Cain’s perfecto last night in San Francisco was the best game ever pitched — or, if not that, then at least better than Sandy Koufax’s 1965 perfect game against the Cubs. It’s a good question, particularly because both Cain and Koufax struck out fourteen.
But there are stark and obvious differences between the two games, not least that Koufax was a southpaw and Cain is a righty. The two are very different kinds of pitchers.
But there are equally important similarities, including the fact that both pitchers were throwing against teams that were and are rebuilding — and going nowhere. But, at least in our opinion, you’d have to go a ways to equal what Koufax did in 1965.
Though the Cubs were in the cellar (and would stay there), their line-up was hardly as anemic as last night’s Cain perfecto against Houston. Cain pitched against a so-so middle-of-the-order that included Jose Altuve, Jed Lowrie and Brett Wallace. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not the equal of what Koufax faced, which included Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Ernie Banks. As of this year, all of them are in the Hall of Fame and one of them — Banks — is one of the best hitters of all time.
Then too, the 1965 game is legendary for the number of stories that have come out of it. While we don’t know the “inside story” of the Cain gem, what Koufax did and how the Cubs reacted, is now well-worn fact. When Santo first came to the plate he asked second sacker Glenn Beckert if Koufax was throwing anything good. “We’ve got him tonight,” Beckert responded. “He’s not throwing anything.”
The Cubs were confident even before the game, with one of their players telling the clubhouse that Koufax was hittable when he was in the stretch — with men on base. The only problem for the Cubs was that Koufax never needed to pitch from the stretch, because there was never anyone on base.
Finally, there’s the story of Cubs starter Bob Hendley. Hendley had come over to the Cubs from the Giants in May of ’65, hoping that a change of scene would help his career. Hendley never threw anything that would set the league afire, but on the night that Koufax pitched, Hendley threw the best game of his career. He had a no hitter going into the 7th before giving up a double — the only hit he would give up all night.
So when Koufax was throwing his perfecto (in front of some 26,000-plus), Hendley was throwing a one hitter, a gem that kept the Cubs in the game despite Koufax’s magic. The final score was 1-0, a more fitting result from a great perfecto than Cain’s still beautiful 10-0 offering.
So just for the record, the Koufax-Hendley game was a Koufax-Hendley gem, a one hitter between them, with only two men reaching base. Koufax took the much-deserved headlines, but the game was memorable for the Cubs too, and left the fans shaking their heads. Then too, in 1965, Koufax struck out, in order, the last six Cubbies he faced.
This is not to take anything away from Matt Cain, whose dominating performance has vaulted him into the top tier of the greatest games ever pitched — he’s up there with Koufax, and with Harvey Haddix, who threw twelve perfect in 1959, and with Kerry Wood (who struck out twenty) and with Nolan Ryan, who notched seven no hitters in all. But better than Koufax? We don’t think so . . .