When Phil Niekro waddled to the mound Saturday at New York to face the Texas Rangers, there may have been some among the 45,274 Yankee Stadium fans who thought they were seeing the second game of an Old-Timers Day doubleheader.
It was even more confusing when Niekro's pitches didn't appear to be getting to the plate any faster than 67-year-old Ed Lopat's were. Lopat pitched in the real Old-Timers game.
In the end, though, it was the Rangers who were confused. Niekro, in ending a long slump, held the Rangers scoreless for seven innings and pitched the Yankees to a 3-1 victory. It was the Yankees' ninth win in 10 games and 15th in 19 games.
Niekro, in ending a personal five-game losing streak, won the 292nd game of his long career. At 46, Niekro, known through the years as a premier knuckleball pitcher, unveiled a new pitch, a lob, which he called a slip pitch. He used it several times to keep the Rangers, losers of seven of their last eight games, more confused.
About the only consolation for the Rangers was that they ended Don Mattingly's hitting streak at 20 games. Mattingly's grounder, after hits by Rickey Henderson and Willie Randolph in the first, produced the first Yankee run. It was the 77th run scored this season by Henderson.
Niekro, 21 years younger than Lopat, a Yankee star of the 50s, held the Rangers to five hits and no runs until the eighth but was replaced after giving up singles to Geno Petralli and Bobby Jones. Dave Righetti gave up a single by Bill Stein and it scored the only run for the Rangers.
In his six starts since winning June 3, Niekro had given up 42 hits, 28 earned runs and 21 walks in 34 innings. He was probably wondering if he was about due to join the old timers.
"Some of the guys were asking me if I was going to start both games," Niekro told the Associated Press. "And one guy asked me if Honus Wagner could hit a knuckleball.
"I can't lose every time I go out there. But I had it dancing (the knuckleball) today and I'm glad to make a contribution."
Manager Billy Martin, who stayed with Niekro when the oldest player in the majors was getting knocked around the last five weeks, wasn't so sure he liked Niekro's new pitch.
"If he throws them for strikes, it's OK, I guess," said Martin, who was not happy with the lob ball when reliever Dave LaRoche used to throw it for the Yankees. "I was a little surprised by it."
The Rangers, who are missing two of their best hitters, Cliff Johnson and Larry Parrish, because of injuries, have only one run and 13 hits in the last two games.
"No matter how I juggle the lineup, the wrong guys keep coming up in key spots," Manager Bobby Valentine said.
"Niekro got us out on fastballs in the first three innings, then the slow stuff later. His knuckler wasn't great, he was."
Kansas City 5, Cleveland 1--Bret Saberhagen of the Royals, the precocious 21-year-old right-hander from Reseda, wasn't chosen for the All-Star Game, but he is pitching considerably better than several of them who were picked.
In this game at Cleveland, Saberhagen easily outpitched the Indians' Bert Blyleven, who will be at Minneapolis Tuesday night.
"I can understand how one person from every team has to be there," Saberhagen said. "But the thing was, he (Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson) took three pitchers from his own club. I really can't see all three of them being on it. But, I'm young and I hope there will be other chances for me."
While Kansas City jumped on Blyleven (8-9) for 11 hits, including a home run and a run-scoring single by Frank White, Saberhagen gave up only one run, Andre Thornton's sixth home run and improved his record to 10-4.
For the last two months Saberrhagen has been almost unbeatable. In his last 12 starts he is 8-1 and has an earned-run average of 2.01 in those 12 starts. In his last three starts, covering 26 innings, he has not walked a batter.
Royal Manager Dick Howser said: "He's 21 but he pitches like he's 30. He's in his second year and he just keeps getting better."
Oakland 2, Milwaukee 0--Two rookie pitchers who weren't even on the roster when the season started came through in grand style for the A's in this game at Oakland.
Tall, lanky left-hander Tim Birtsas and right-hander Steve Ontiveros combined on a five-hitter to beat the Brewers.
The 6-6 Birtsas (5-2) gave up four hits in 6 innings and Ontiveros gave up the other hit in the last 2 innings.
It was the first save for Ontiveros, although he has given up only two runs in his last 24 innings.
Chicago 10, Baltimore 8--It goes in the book as a complete game, but it isn't one that Britt Burns will be bragging about.
In this game at Baltimore, the White Sox gave Burns (9-6) a 9-0 lead in four innings. But Burns served up a two-run homer in the fourth to Gary Roenicke and a grand slam to the same guy in the fifth and all of a sudden he had only a 9-8 lead.
However, he turned it around again, retiring 13 of the last 15 batters he faced to finish with an eight-hitter.