Ron Guidry's Louisiana Lightning struck twice in the same place last week. Unbeatable all season, the New York lefthander was virtually untouchable in Yankee Stadium, where he pitched a pair of shutouts that had the fans rising to their feet and prevented the world champions from falling on their faces. In the process, Guidry broke a couple of strikeout records, moved closer to a bunch of consecutive victory marks, strengthened his No. 1 ranking among American League pitchers and not once swallowed his chaw of tobacco. The Cajun is ragin'.
Guidry is a fast and efficient worker, always in rhythm, with no wasted motion. But it is the .44-caliber arm on his popgun body that makes him so deadly. On Monday night against Oakland he allowed three singles, walked two and struck out 11 in a 2-0 victory. Five nights later against California, he was even better: four hits, two walks and 18 whiffs in a 4-0 win. The 18 strikeouts surpassed by three Bob Shawkey's 59-year-old team record and were one more than Frank Tanana's league mark for a lefthander. They fell one short of the major league record held by Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan.
As Guidry's strikeouts mounted, the 33,162 fans added to the excitement by booing ball calls and by tumultuously clapping, yelling and stomping every time Guidry got two strikes on a batter. Because the Yankees had scored their four runs in the first three innings, the crowd sat passively through New York's other at bats, anxiously waiting for Guidry to start throwing strikes again. When the game ended, the fans gave Guidry a sustained ovation that prompted him to come out of the clubhouse for a curtain call.
Even more impressive than Guidry's strikeouts is his won-lost record, which is 11-0 for the year and 21-1—including two victories in the playoffs and World Series—since Aug. 10, 1977. He is now within one of the Yankee record of 12 consecutive victories to open a season and within four of the league record.
All of this is downright amazing, considering that two seasons ago Guidry was a minor league relief pitcher who wanted to quit baseball and that in spring training last year he pitched so poorly he looked as if he should have. Nevertheless, Manager Billy Martin kept him on the 1977 roster and then reluctantly took him out of the bullpen and put him in the starting rotation when some established pitchers could not do the job. It was not long before Guidry proved himself the most dependable man on the staff, with eight straight victories down the stretch as the Yankees climbed from third place to the East Division title. After being defeated in his last regular-season start of 1977, Guidry came back with a three-hit victory over Kansas City in the playoffs and a four-hitter against Los Angeles in the Series. This season Guidry has simply picked up where he left off, racking up six complete games in 14 starts, a league-leading 1.45 earned run average and an average of 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
The Yankees could not have won without Guidry last year and, considering Boston's blitzing pace—the 45-20 Red Sox led third-place New York by seven games at week's end—they would not be in the race without him this season. No other New York starter has an earned run average below 3.00, and only Ed Figueroa, 7-5, has a decent record. Meanwhile, millionaires Catfish Hunter, Don Gullett and Andy Messersmith have emerged from the training room just long enough to win three games in 12 appearances. It has been left to Guidry to save the team's high-priced hide.
"He's our stud," says Reggie Jackson. "He's dominating the league now the way Denny McLain did for two years in the '60s, the way Catfish used to do, and the way Jim Palmer still can."
At 5'11", 161 pounds, the 27-year-old Guidry does not look like a stud and, with his soft Louisiana patois, he does not sound like one. But appearances and accents are not very important when a pitcher throws a 95-mph fastball and a sharp-breaking slider—both of which usually end up going exactly where Guidry wants them to. That usually means one corner of the plate or another, but in his 18-strikeout performance Guidry worked ahead of the hitters with his fastball and then, on a number of occasions, struck them out with sliders that dipped out of the strike zone. The last time anything like that was seen was in Sandy Koufax' prime, when he would get ahead with his smoker and then whiff overanxious swingers with a sweeping curve in the dirt.
The fastball and slider, which are Guidry's only pitches, have given him the best record in the league, although he modestly insists that he is not the best pitcher. To hear him tell it, he isn't even No. 1 on his own staff. "Look at the names on the lockers," he says. "Guys like Catfish and Gullett and Messersmith have all had great seasons. It just so happens that they're struggling now and I'm the one in a good groove. I know I'm important and that the team is relying on me, but if I say I have to win, I might try too hard."
Even if the others were at their best, Guidry would still stand out. Not only is he a gifted pitcher, but Martin and Jackson extol his running and defensive virtues as well. "He and Palmer are the two best athletes among pitchers I've ever seen," Jackson says. "The few times I've seen him swing the bat make me think he could be an every-day player, the way Bob Gibson could have been."
When Guidry signed with the Yankees in 1971 after 2½ years at the University of Southwest Louisiana, he wanted to be an outfielder. He says he still wonders how well he might have done. "The scouts told me my future was as a pitcher," he says, "so I guess I'll never find out."
Oddly, the man who signed Guidry, Atley Donald, is the coholder of the Yankee record for consecutive wins that Guidry is threatening to break. Donald won his 12 straight as a rookie in 1939 to tie Tom Zachary, who was 12-0 in 1929.
In the first three years after he signed, Guidry showed so little promise as a starter that he agreed to become a reliever in 1974. After a difficult year of transition he was considered a major league prospect. The Yankees shuttled him back and forth between Syracuse and New York in 1975 and '76, until the frustration of being returned to the minors in June 1976 made Guidry pack up his car and point it toward the bayous. Reason prevailed an hour out of New York when his wife Bonnie asked, "Are you sure you want to do this? You've never been a quitter before." One exit later Guidry was heading back to Syracuse, where he had an outstanding season: 5-1, 0.68 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 40 innings.
After that, the Yankee front office began to view Guidry as a successor to relief ace Sparky Lyle, which, in a way, was appropriate because Lyle had helped him develop a slider. But in the 1977 exhibition season Guidry was more a liability than a Lyle, with a 10.24 ERA in six appearances. Nonetheless, Martin decided to keep him. "Gabe Paul [then the Yankee general manager] was high on Ron and so were his minor league managers," Martin says. "I took their word." In the process, he rejected the opinion of owner George Steinbrenner, who felt Guidry needed more seasoning.
Guidry got a chance to prove his owner wrong when Mike Torrez was late reporting after being traded to New York from Oakland. With Torrez unavailable for an April 29 game against Seattle, Martin had to find a fill-in. His choices were Ed Ricks, another youngster, and Guidry, who had already defeated Kansas City in relief. Martin picked Guidry, who went out and beat the Mariners 3-0. Three weeks later, when Hunter missed a turn because of an injury, Guidry came through again, pitching 8‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® strong innings in a 5-2, 15-inning victory over Oakland. Guidry had found a place in the starting rotation, and the Yankees had found a skinny savior.
Guidry says that to make his rapid transition from minor league reliever to Yankee fill-in to major league stopper, "I had to learn that I couldn't just throw smoke. I've never had a good curve, and in the minors my slider was never better than Triple-A quality. When the slider finally developed, I had something to offset the fastball."
That Guidry had a fastball to begin with is amazing considering his physique. Even he can't account for his speed. "It's more a gift than anything else," he says.
Whatever, Guidry shows no sign of letting up. When it was suggested to Martin last week that, of course, his ace could not stay unbeaten all season, Billy said, "Oh, yeah. How do you know?"