On Sunday afternoon, Tampa Bay Rays starter Drew Rasmussen fell just an inning short of making an ultra-rare piece of baseball history. He took a perfect game into the 9th inning against the Baltimore Orioles but it was broken up by a leadoff double courtesy of Jorge Mateo. Mateo would come around to score, Rasmussen exited the game with 2 outs to go, and fans were left with yet another "what-if" scenario as Rasmussen failed to go the distance.
Amazingly, this all happened just a day before the 10th anniversary of MLB's last perfect game, a masterpiece by Mariners legend Felix Hernandez in August 2012. Since then, so many players have come close. The Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw has thrown 7 perfect innings twice this season but didn't record 27 consecutive outs either time. Rasmussen was the latest to flirt with perfection and come up short, but going 8.1 innings while allowing 1 hit and 0 walks is an impressive feat nonetheless. How close did Rasmussen come to registering one of the best starts in Rays franchise history?
One number that could help determine the answer is Game Score, which was originally developed by Bill James to provide a general overview of a starting pitcher's performance in a single game. A game score of 50 is average, 0 is horrendous, and 100 is usually achieved once every few seasons; it's a score reserved for the most remarkable performances. Rasmussen's outing on Sunday culminated in a game score of 84, which is still well above average and is far and away the best mark of his career. Over the course of those 8.1 innings, he struck out 7, walked none, threw 87 pitches, and Mateo's double led to the only hit and run he allowed.
Per Baseball Almanac, only 4 Rays have ever thrown more than 5 complete games while with the team: James Shields, David Price, Matt Garza, and the late Joe Kennedy. Most of those names align with the team's first competitive years in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Rasmussen obviously didn't throw a complete game on Sunday and before that start, he had only completed 7 innings just once in his career. Between those aforementioned former Rays pitchers, there are some outstanding single-game performances to decipher.
Under the standard that a single start must be at least a complete game shutout to be considered one of the best in team history, Rasmussen is automatically out of the running. However, it's still worth a look for comparison's sake. The Rays have never had a perfect game since their inception in 1998, but they do have a single no-hitter: Matt Garza no-hit the Tigers at Tropicana Field in July 2010 on 120 pitches. They technically have another 9-inning no-hitter from earlier this year, but it was a combined effort and the game went to extra innings anyway.
The only thing that kept Garza from perfection in that start was a single walk, and he ended up facing the minimum 27 batters. However, he only recorded 6 strikeouts, so his game score for the outing was 92. If he had struck out more batters, it would have been closer to the prestigious 100 mark. In terms of other names that have pitched a handful of complete games for Tampa Bay, David Price consistently went deeper into games than nearly anyone else, but he only threw a single complete-game shutout during his time with the team. He rarely recorded all 27 outs, even during his torrid stretch from 2010 to 2012.
James Shields, on the other hand, pitched a record 11 complete games in 2011. The best one was a brilliant shutout effort in Miami that saw him strike out 13 batters while allowing just 3 hits and 1 walk on 126 pitches, which culminated in a game score of 93. The highest game score he ever recorded, though, came in his last-ever start in a Rays uniform - and it was somehow a loss. On the final weekend of the 2012 season, Shields threw 9 innings, striking out 15 batters and walking none on 2 hits. One of those hits, however, was a solo home run by Baltimore's Chris Davis that ended up winning the game 1-0 for the visiting Orioles.
Five of Joe Kennedy's 6 complete games with the Rays came in 2002, but despite a poor 2003 season by ERA's standards, he was able to log innings. His best effort was his only complete game of 2003, and it came in the form of an immaculate 1-hit, 1-walk shutout in Detroit that saw him strike out 6 batters on 106 pitches.
Via game score, Shields' brilliant 15-strikeout loss against the Orioles is the best-ever start in Rays franchise history. However, that honor should go to Matt Garza in my opinion because the game score of his no-hitter was only 2 points lower and he was able to finish off the no-hitter. Shields also allowed a home run, which should detract from his performance more because it's the only type of hit that automatically leads to at least a run scoring.
Drew Rasmussen came even closer to fitting himself into this equation than he did to closing out his near-perfect game. Again, he ended up with a game score of 84, but that number was at 88 entering the 9th inning. If he was indeed able to throw a perfect game, his game score would have been at least 93, and that's assuming that he failed to strike out any Oriole hitters in the 9th in this hypothetical scenario.
If he closed it out, Rasmussen would have easily achieved the honor of the single best start in Rays franchise history. The unfortunate thing about failed no-hit and perfecto bids, however, is that the single double that he allowed probably puts him closer to the 20th-or-30th-best in the end.