HOUSTON — He is 38 years old, and at times you'd swear he was broken down.
He went on the disabled list twice in one month (last June) with a blister on his finger and a pulled muscle in his calf. He pulled his hamstring in each of his last two starts, the last against the Dodgers. He missed 40 days in the last four months of the season.
Time for a testimonial? Not quite. In New York, Dwight Gooden's coronation as the new King of K already may have taken place. But Gooden will have to wait until Nolan Ryan, Houston's choice to open the season tonight against the Dodgers in the Astrodome (5:35 p.m., Channel 11), decides to abdicate. And that hasn't happened yet.
Though his record was 12-11 last season, Ryan was still third in the league in strikeouts with 197, averaging 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings. And last May, the only month he was completely healthy, Ryan was 5-0 with a microscopic 0.20 earned-run average.
The Dodgers have had uncommon success against Ryan, if you want to overlook the fact that they were victims of his record fifth no-hitter on Sept. 26 1981, or that he has struck out 155 Dodgers in 170 innings.
The Dodgers' record against Ryan in 13-6, the best of anyone in the National League. And the Dodgers' pick to oppose Ryan tonight, Fernando Valenzuela, pitching his fourth opener in five seasons, is 8-3 lifetime against Houston.
The last time Valenzuela pitched an opener in Houston, in 1983, he didn't last three innings in the Dodgers' 16-7 win. And that was before they moved in the fences 10 feet in both left field and right field, to 330 down the line, and another 6 feet in center, to 400. The Astros hit exactly 18 home runs at home last season, with only catcher Mark Bailey (7) having more than two.
The Dodgers, who worked out in the Astrodome after arriving in Houston late Monday afternoon, are still uncertain about the availability of second baseman Steve Sax, who strained ligaments in his right leg Sunday in a collision with Bobby Grich of the Angels.
With Bob Bailor on the 21-day disabled list with a sore shoulder, Bill Russell is Sax's only available backup, and he's nursing a sore ankle.
If Sax can play, the Dodgers' lineup will remain the one that they have used nearly all spring:
Sax, 2b; Ken Landreaux, cf; Al Oliver, lf; Pedro Guerrero, 3b; Mike Marshall, rf; Mike Scioscia, c; Greg Brock, 1b; Dave Anderson, ss; Valenzuela, p.
Sid Bream, despite his 8 hits in 10 at-bats during the Freeway Series, will sit, even though Brock has had a dreadful time against the Astros in the past, with a .134 average. Bream, by contrast, is hitting .455 against Houston in just 11 at-bats.
"We're going to utilize him as much as we can," Lasorda said of Bream. "But Brock's arm is bothering him, and if he can't play, we'll use Bream. We're going to try to keep Bream as sharp as possible."
At this stage, the Dodgers are committed to Brock, who had a good spring, hitting over .300 with 11 RBIs. Brock's right elbow, which he injured making an awkward throw to second base at Vero Beach, still is bothering him, but it hasn't kept him out of the lineup.