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Mike Downey

Here Is the Man Who Patched Up Dodger Pitching

August 14, 1985|Mike Downey

Ron Perranoski has had a healthy pitching staff about as often as Trapper John has had an empty waiting room. For a couple of summers now, about all the pitching coach of the Dodgers could do was come to the park, inspect the disabled list and see who was off it. Then he gave that guy the ball.

Rick Honeycutt fell down jogging and wound up with an arthritic shoulder. Tom Niedenfuer passed out in a hotel lobby because of an unfriendly kidney stone and later strained a ligament in his elbow. Steve Howe, who already had enough problems, underwent surgery to re-route a nerve in his elbow, which was six months before Howe himself was re-routed to Minneapolis.

Those were the scars of the staff.

Then came the superscars. Jerry Reuss had bone fragments removed from his elbow, pulled a hamstring and had bone spurs removed from both heels. Bob Welch had a sore shoulder and groin injury to go along with the bone spurs found in his elbow a couple of years previously. Alejandro Pena got over the bleeding ulcer of 1981 and the migraine headaches of 1983, only to blow out his shoulder in the middle of 1984.

Team Elsewhere.

Ambulance chasers must have started following the healthy pitchers around, figuring they were doomed. Lloyd's of London probably wouldn't have insured the pinkies of Fernando Valenzuela or Orel Hershiser, much less their arms. Ken Howell and Carlos Diaz must have wondered what horrible things fate had in store for them . Every day with the Dodger pitchers became the night of the living dead.

It got to the point that the Dodgers didn't know if they were going to have to coax Sandy Koufax out of retirement or what. "In spring training, I knew what sort of pitchers we had," Perranoski said Tuesday. "I just wasn't sure which ones we were going to be able to use."

If you had told the coach in April that Pena, the league ERA leader for '84, would not throw a single pitch all season, or that Welch would be spending part of the summer in Florida trying to find his old form, or that Howe would no longer even be with the team, you could not have blamed him if he had predicted that the Dodgers would be scrapping with the Giants for fifth place.

As it happens, L.A. has a big, fat lead in the National League West, mostly because of two things. One is the thunderbat of Pedro Guerrero--and anybody who says otherwise should be rushed immediately to the St. Elsewhere psycho ward. The other is the pitching. Big news in Dodger Stadium these days is any opponent who gets on base.

Friday, Aug. 9--Complete game by Welch. Eight hits, one run. Dodgers 3, Cincinnati 1.

Saturday, Aug. 10--Complete game by Valenzuela. Four hits, one run, unearned. Dodgers 2, Cincinnati 1.

Sunday, Aug. 11--Complete game by Reuss. Six hits, no runs. Dodgers 4, Cincinnati 0.

Monday, Aug. 12--Six innings by Honeycutt. Two hits, no runs. Three innings by Niedenfuer. One hit, no runs. Dodgers 3, Atlanta 0.

Welch has won seven games in a row. Valenzuela has won six straight. Niedenfuer's ERA is 1.96. Welch's is lower. Valenzuela has 13 complete games. Hershiser has two four-hitters, a three-hitter, a two-hitter and a one-hitter. Reuss is 10-7. Niedenfuer and Howell have 21 saves between them. Diaz's ERA is 1.84.

The Dodgers almost always have had good pitching, from Brickyard Kennedy to Dazzy Vance, from Van Lingle Mungo to J. Whitlow Wyatt, from Sandy to Fernando. But rarely has their staff seemed so deep, so bottomless, so balanced, even with a gifted guy like Pena pitching nothing more than batting practice.

"When we're healthy, I'd have to say we're the deepest of any pitching staff in the league," Perranoski said. "I just didn't know if we were ever going to be healthy again."

With pitching supposedly representing 75%--90%?--of a team's success, and with pitching coaches supposedly supplying the brains of the outfit, perhaps Perranoski should be given his due. Heaven knows, Ray Miller got enough credit for molding Baltimore's pitching staff in 1983, and Roger Craig sure was salaamed last summer in Detroit. It might be time to tell the world that Los Angeles has a pitching coach, too.

Sometimes, Perranoski really does need to do nothing more than to give Valenzuela or Hershiser the ball. "But even guys like that go through rough stretches," he said. "You might feel like you're doing everything right, but the ball just isn't going where you want it to go."

Then there are major reclamation projects. Honeycutt never fell apart or anything like that, but to say he was struggling is to be generous and kind. In his three starts before Monday's, he hadn't stuck around past the third inning. His place in the rotation--in a title race--had been taken by a 21-year-old rookie, Dennis Powell.

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