For Tim Atherton, every single moment in professional baseball is one to cherish. Some of them are surreal memories for a lifetime.
Atherton carried a perfect game into the eighth inning as Class A Advanced Stockton took down Lake Elsinore, 5-1, at Banner Island Ballpark.
"When I first signed as a 17-year-old, I thought that was it, I'm just going to play baseball for the rest of my life," the Australian said of his first professional contract with Minnesota seven years ago. "Then 2008, when I was released by the Twins and the Padres, I thought, 'Well, that's it. Life's over. What is there now?' I'd been released by two clubs by the time I was 18. Seven years ago, if I knew that I'd be standing here talking to you after getting so close to a perfect game, then I wouldn't have been so hard on myself."
Atherton (3-0) was locked in like few times in his baseball life Thursday night. The right-hander from Kempsey, New South Wales, who resurrected his career with a conversion from the outfield to the mound, mowed down Storm hitters and peppered his line with nine strikeouts. Atherton fanned at least one batter in every inning except the sixth and retired the first 22 hitters he faced on a night in which everything seemed to work.
"My fourth-best pitch, my changeup, I think I only threw it for a ball twice," Atherton said. "My curveball I was able to throw as a get-me-over and as a strikeout pitch. I was big with the cutter, keeping them off the fastball, and then just working in and out, up and down with the fastball. It was just one of those nights where the planets aligned. It wasn't one thing in particular, it was just everything coming together."
Aaron Shipman gave Atherton the lead in the second with an RBI single in the second and Matt Olson followed with a solo homer in the third. Then, they stayed away from him.
"It was probably the fifth or sixth inning, and I looked around me and no one was within 20 feet of me in the dugout," Atherton said. "I didn't want to look at the scoreboard, and I had to remember where I was up in the lineup. That kind of jogged me."
Oakland selected Atherton in the Triple-A phase of December's Rule 5 Draft. Little did he know, the 24-year-old may have been auditioning for his current club last season while once more in the Twins system. Last April while with Class A Cedar Rapids, Atherton finished off a combined no-hitter against Oakland's Midwest League affiliate Beloit and struck out 11 while not allowing an earned run over an eight-inning performance against that same club in August.
"[The Rule 5 Draft] was a confusing time because I didn't really know too much about it," he said. "I found out that it was from the A's wanting to go out and get me. That set me up for a pretty exciting year, and the treatment they've given me so far has been second to none."
Atherton opened the eighth with a strikeout before Lake Elsinore's Diego Goris broke up his bid at perfection with a double just out of the reach of Stockton center fielder and No. 2 A's prospect Billy McKinney.
"I was upset, of course," Atherton said, "more at myself just because it was a 1-2 count, and I left a cutter in an area that he could put a good swing on it, which is unacceptable. That shouldn't have happened, but at the end of the day, we don't pitch for perfect games. We pitch to give our team a chance to win a ballgame. On a selfish note, I was disappointed, but I still had a job to do to keep our club in the game and get us a win."
After Luis Domoromo singled to end the shutout one batter later, Atherton's day was done. Stockton reliever Austin House issued a walk before getting out of the jam with a double-play ball.
Atherton, who earned a win for Team Australia against Arizona in an exhibition game last month at the Sydney Cricket Ground, rested as his team ensured he'd get into the win column. Ryon Healy belted a two-run homer and Wade Kirkland added an RBI single in the eighth.
House worked around a two-out walk in the ninth to finish off his second save.
No. 9 Padres prospect Joe Ross (1-2) took the loss after allowing two runs on six hits over five innings. He struck out five and walked two.