Superficially, the crowds in Houston's Astrodome last week had come to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Astros, but what they really wanted to see was the "duel" between baseball's strikeout kings, J.R. Richard and Nolan Ryan, leaders in the National and American Leagues last year, now teammates on the Astros. Richard, 29, has struck out more than 300 batters in each of the last two seasons, averaging 9.78 per nine innings. Ryan, 33, has five 300-strikeout seasons, ranks fourth on the alltime strikeout list and has averaged 9.73 a game for his 12-year career. The prospects were delicious, unless you happened to be a Dodger.
Richard drew the Opening Day—night, really—assignment for the fifth year in a row, which enabled Ryan to pitch the third game Saturday before a national television audience. J.R. went out and produced what he later called "my best game ever," winning 3-2, striking out 13 and coming very close to a perfect game. Over to you, Nolan.
Ryan, appearing just 26 miles from his Alvin, Texas home, said he felt the greatest pressure of his life. His performance was effective, but it paled beside Richard's—or his personal best, for that matter. Even so, he pitched and, astonishingly, hit the Astros to a 5-4 lead in six innings, although he struck out only three. Houston eventually lost 6-5 in a 17-inning, five-hours-plus game that wiped out much of NBC's Saturday night programming.
And what about Game 2? Enter Joe Niekro. While Richard was going 18-13 with the Astros and Ryan 16-14 with the Angels last season, Niekro fluttered his knuckleball to a 21-11 record. Pitching between Richard and Ryan may obscure Niekro's achievements. As San Diego's Dave Winfield said to him at an off-season charity roast, "Everybody was so scared of J.R. last year that you sneaked in the back door and won 21 games. Now, with Ryan, you'll probably win 25 and nobody will know it."
Niekro certainly didn't receive any favors from his teammates last week. They committed three errors that led to five unearned runs during his five-inning stint on Friday night. After Niekro retired, the Astros stormed from behind for a 10-6 victory. Two days later, the fourth Houston starter, Ken Forsch, who pitched a no-hitter last year, beat the Dodgers 4-2 to complete a three-wins-in-four-games beginning for the Astros.
Although Richard and Ryan are lumped generically as "power pitchers," they are different in several important ways. While Ryan's fastball tends to rise, Richard's darts. Ryan's second pitch is a curve, Richard's a slider. Ryan is forever trying to shear off the corners of the plate; Richard goes for the middle and depends on the natural movement of the ball to baffle the batter. Ryan's pitch is easier to follow than Richard's because Ryan's delivery is more overhand and the ball moves less. Finally, Ryan's ball is "lighter," or easier to catch.
What Richard and Ryan have in common is a whole lot of heat. Last week Richard was the faster, whipping the ball in at 98 mph for the first time in his career, and doing so on four separate deliveries. Ryan got up to 97 mph only once, but later in the season he will undoubtedly go higher. Richard's slider, meanwhile, was in the 89-to-91-mph range; Ryan's curve dropped to 80 to 81 mph.
Variations in style and speed weren't all that separated Richard and Ryan last week. Although both felt that strenuous off-season work had put them in the best shape of their careers, only Richard had the confidence to match. J.R., after all, was facing a team that he had defeated 11 straight times, against whom he had a 13-4 career record and a 1.98 ERA. Ryan had also faced the Dodgers before, during his four-year career with the Mets (1968-71), but that was long ago. Those Dodgers had beaten him six of seven times; these Dodgers were largely unfamiliar and had bombed him for nine hits and eight runs during a three-inning spring-training appearance. "There is nothing I dislike more than facing a hitter I don't know," he said before the game. "It's like walking into a dark room and not knowing where the furniture is."
Richard tried to help Ryan by going over the hitters with him on Wednesday while the two did their stretching exercises. "He's country," Richard says with a laugh, "but I like him."
Ryan and Richard have been a disappointment to those who wanted them to show signs of jealousy. Even though some feelings of competition would be natural, even healthy, neither will admit to any. "Competition is the farthest thing from my mind," says Richard. "He's got his money and I've got mine."
Indeed they do. Richard signed a four-year, $3.2 million contract last October. A month later Ryan capitalized on his free-agent status by signing for $3.6 million over three years, with the club retaining the option on a fourth year at $1 million. Richard's attitude has been exemplary, considering that he has been with the club longer, is four years younger, has a better career record (.591 to .512).
John J. McMullen, the New Jersey shipbuilder who bought the Astros last July, readily admits that Ryan's salary "numbers," as he calls them, are "mind-boggling." But he adds, "If anybody's worth it, Nolan is. He's one of the great pitchers in American baseball. We're convinced that with him we could have gone all the way last year instead of losing the division by a game and a half."
McMullen says he wouldn't have signed Ryan if the team hadn't already possessed Richard. "In this case, we think one plus one is more than two. They're going to be competitive with one another in a proper way."
This was certainly true of Richard last Thursday. He had spent a relaxed day, helping his wife by making the beds of their five children, listening to jazz on the stereo, visiting a local Datsun dealer who had promised him the use of a 280 ZX. In batting practice he bantered with Dodgers Reggie Smith, Dusty Baker and Davey Lopes.
Then he got serious. Richard's first pitch of the game to Lopes was a fastball: called strike. Two minutes later he had called strike three. After Centerfielder Rudy Law grounded out, Richard nailed Smith swinging. In the second inning he added Steve Garvey, Baker and Ron Cey to the list. He struck out two more in the third, Lopes again in the fourth, Garvey and Cey in the fifth and Shortstop Derrel Thomas in the sixth. Thomas was playing because the regular shortstop, Bill Russell, was on the bench with a sore left foot. "J.R.-thritis," he called it.
Richard said later that he began thinking about a no-hitter in the seventh inning. He might just as well have thought of a perfect game because no Dodger had reached base and only one had hit a fly ball to the outfield. Lopes brought Richard one out closer by leading off the seventh with a grounder to second base.
With just eight outs remaining and the crowd of 33,270 buzzing, Law stepped in for his third at bat. The first Dodger rookie to make the Opening Day lineup in 10 years, Law had given a lot of thought to his appearance against Richard. "I've heard so much about him I've been eating, sleeping and dreaming J.R. Richard every night," he said later. "He was throwing balls you could hardly see, and he was getting them over the plate."
Richard's second pitch to Law came in at 93 mph, fast by most standards but well off his earlier pace. Law slapped it solidly into rightfield, and there went the no-hitter. Smith hit another straggling 93-mph fastball just inside first base for a double, Law scored, and there went the shutout. An error and a sacrifice fly gave the Dodgers their second run, but they were to get no more. Richard ended the inning with a strikeout and retired the side in order in the eighth. Because of a minor back strain Richard suffered while running the bases in the bottom of the eighth, Reliever Joe Sambito finished up the game.
The Dodgers weren't the only ones overwhelmed by Richard's performance. So was Ryan. "I've only seen two other pitchers dominate a game like that," he said the next day. "Tom Seaver struck out 19 against San Diego in 1970 and Ron Guidry struck out 18 against the Angels in 1978."
Of course, Ryan was ignoring the games in which he had thoroughly dominated the opposition, particularly his four no-hitters and his four 19-strikeout games. And he made it clear that he wasn't expecting to do any dominating himself on Saturday. "The fans aren't going to get that kind of performance," he said, sounding positively negative.
Ryan explained that he didn't expect to be at his best for several reasons. There was the unfamiliarity with the Dodger hitters, of course. Also his lack of mound work in spring training. Unlike the Angels, who require pitchers to throw either in a game or on the sideline every other day, the Astros have a five-day rotation supplemented only by throwing a little batting practice. "I'm new, so I don't want to make waves," Ryan said. "I thought I'd try it this way, but I'd feel more comfortable if I had had more work."
It may be, however, that what Ryan really wants to do is lower the expectations of the people who believe he should be better because he is wealthier. "I know there will be people coming out to see me because they've read about the salary," he says. "They expect to see a guy throwing like a howitzer, but I can't do that. I'm 33, and people should know by now what my potential is. I might improve on my best season, but I'm not going to go 25-5."
The man who is paying Ryan all that money is not exactly thrilled by this kind of talk.
"I think Nolan Ryan will be surprised," McMullen says. "He may do better than he expects. He won't have to be the workhorse for us that he has been in the past because he's in a proper rotation. I think our manager [Bill Virdon] and pitching coach [Mel Wright] can help make him better."
Ryan knew what he was doing when he squashed the high hopes for his first game. He gave up a 360-foot home run to Baker in the second inning and a 400-foot blast to Smith in the third. Overall, he allowed six hits and he put five more runners on base with walks. His only strikeout victims were Lopes, Cey and Smith.
But if Ryan struggled in and out of danger on the mound, he made up for it at the plate in the fourth inning. With two on, one out and one run already in, he stepped in with orders to bunt. This game marked Ryan's first appearance as a batter since 1972, the last season before the designated-hitter rule went into effect in the American League. In 262 previous plate appearances, including his pop foul to Garvey in the second inning, Ryan had a .134 batting average with no home runs and only eight RBIs.
Nevertheless, after Dodger Pitcher Don Sutton missed the plate twice, Virdon took off the bunt sign and told Ryan to swing away. "The way the infielders were charging in, I knew there was no way he could get a bunt off anyway," Virdon explained.
So Sutton pitched and Ryan swung and the bat made contact and the ball zoomed above the left centerfield fence 390 feet away. In leftfield Dusty Baker threw up his arms, and on first base Catcher Alan Ashby had a feeling of "total disbelief." The scoreboard began its home-run sequence, 40 seconds of cowboys shooting guns and roping steers, and 34,609 fans screamed joyously. When Ryan reached second base he realized the ball had cleared the fence, so instead of legging out a double he was now improvising a home-run trot. In the owner's box McMullen laughed and said, "Everybody told me we needed a righthanded power hitter. Well, we've got one."
Unfortunately, the home run and the standing ovation that brought Ryan out of the dugout for a bow would be the only shining moments of his day. "I anticipated making some mistakes and I did," he said of his pitching performance long after the afternoon had turned into night. "I wasn't pleased with my performance, but I'll throw better next time."
Next time he won't be as nervous. And if he's lucky, he won't have another two-hitter by Richard staring him in the face, either.