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OREL HERSHISER : Lasorda's Confidence-Building Tactic Pays Off for Right-Hander

March 31, 1985|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

VERO BEACH, Fla. — He is, in no particular order:

--The only pitcher to beat Rick Sutcliffe (16-1) in a National League regular-season game last season.

--The last Dodger pitcher to retire Johnny Bench of the Reds, getting him to pop out to Pedro Guerrero.

--The only big-leaguer whose four-month-old son has a Roman numeral V after his name and an official nickname, Quinton, to go with it.

--The one rookie pitcher in the National League who made people forget about Dwight Gooden, even for a millisecond, though it took 33 consecutive scoreless innings to do it.

The trivia quiz, or Orel exam, is over. The career of Orel Leonard Hershiser IV, however, is just beginning, although the 26-year-old right-hander nearly walked out of Dodger camp earlier this spring when the Dodgers had trouble meeting his asking price. It seems that when Tom Lasorda took to calling Hershiser "Bulldog" as a means of instilling confidence, the lesson carried over off the field, too.

No need to worry, however, that a little contract dispute would distract Hershiser while he's on the mound. The Navy's Blue Angels buzzed Wrigley Field one day last July while Hershiser was pitching, and the only thing he noticed was that the hitter had stepped out of the batter's box.

"I was staring at the catcher's glove," Hershiser recalled. "I was concentrating so hard that game I gave myself a headache."

Was that concentration borne of discipline?

"That concentration came out of fear," Hershiser said with a chuckle. "The wind was blowing out 20, 25 miles an hour."

It was in that Lake Michigan gale that Hershiser responded with his "ultimate" game of 1984, shutting out the eventual NL Eastern Division champions with two hits on national TV.

That was one of four shutouts Hershiser threw in a span of five starts, including one against the Reds in which he had a perfect game with two outs in the eighth before Neil Esasky hit a 3-and-0 pitch for a single.

"There were a lot of loud outs in that one," he said. "In the Chicago game there was only one hard-hit ball, and that was the last out, the line drive hit to (Candy) Maldonado by (Leon) Durham. I had better command of my stuff that day."

It may have been a Saturday afternoon in Chicago that Hershiser was at his finest in a season in which he went 11-8 and finished third in the league with a 2.66 earned run average. But it was a June night in Dodger Stadium--when he had nothing--that Hershiser came to realize he could succeed in the big leagues.

"The bullpen was really dragging, a bunch of sore, tired arms, and Tommy called down and said, 'Who wants the ball?' " Hershiser said. "I had pitched 3 innings the night before but I volunteered to pitch. I went out there with a sore arm, because I wanted the ball.

"I had no stuff at all. I just concentrated on keeping the ball down and I got through three innings. That's when it finally clicked in my head: If I can go out there with no stuff and concentrate and get them out, what can I do when I go out there when I'm sharp and aggressive and throwing strikes?"

Merely become the Dodgers' most consistent starter after being a fat pitch or two from being sent back to Albuquerque. Through the first two months of the season, Hershiser carried a 5.00-plus ERA around with him. But on June 29, he went into the starting rotation, beat Sutcliffe, 7-1, and never came out.

And by so doing, he quietly disposed of a personal albatross that he'd been toting ever since the day, in 1983, when he struck out seven Dodgers in a row in an intrasquad game and people started taking notice.

"The biggest thing for me was getting rid of the label of 'potential,' " he said. "Other than being called lazy, that's about the worst label a player can have.

"It's one thing when you know you've done your best and it didn't work out. But to know you have all that potential and didn't do it, that was the most frustrating thing for me."

What Hershiser finally learned was that a pitcher can try to do too much.

"I thought I had to be a perfect pitcher," he said, "better than I was in the minor leagues. Now I know I don't have to be any more than just myself.

"There's a fine line between good, better and best. Once you've thrown your best sinker, if you try to throw a better one, it's terrible. . . . You've got to know when to stop.

"When I first came up, I took all that adrenaline that came from being in a big-league arena and went beyond what I was capable of doing. And that just made me worse.

"But when I started to relax and began to believe that I belonged, then I got back to my own level, and let my ability begin to shine."

No longer was he afraid of such people as Mike Schmidt of the Phillies, his childhood hero when he was growing up in Cherry Hills., N.J. The first time he faced Schmidt, he struck him out.

Pete Rose? He grounded out.

Dusty Baker? "An infield hit, a chopper to third," Hershiser said. "We laughed at each other, it was such a cheap hit."

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