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A LOOK AT THE ARMS RACE : THE DODGERS : Perranoski's Tips Help Make Them a Pitcher-Perfect Team

August 29, 1985|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

With the exception of a five-year sabbatical in the American League, Ron Perranoski spans the generation gap of Dodger pitching in Los Angeles.

From the golden age of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, when he was the best relief pitcher in baseball, into the '70s, when he was a minor league instructor, through the dawning of Fernandomania and beyond, which he has overseen as pitching coach, Perranoski has witnessed the greatest stockpiling of arms this side of the Cold War.

So, when Perranoski says that the Dodger staff of '85 with its Four Tops--Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser, Bob Welch and Jerry Reuss--and bullpen beboppers Tom Niedenfuer and Ken Howell can match credentials with any previous set of Dodger standard-bearers, one is inclined to listen.

"I'd definitely say yes," Perranoski said when asked whether the current staff could match arms with its forebears.

"And this is a young staff that's already been through it all. They've won pennants, they've gotten beat on the last day of the season, they know what it's about.

"And if they stay healthy, there's no telling what they can do."

Consider for a moment what this group already has accomplished. The Dodger pitchers lead the National League with an earned-run average of 2.88. The Dodgers are the only team in the major leagues under 3.00. Hershiser, Reuss, Valenzuela and Welch have a combined record of 50-21--25-2 in their last 33 starts--with an even shinier ERA of 2.44. With fifth starter Rick Honeycutt, the Dodgers recently went through a stretch of 52 straight innings without allowing an earned run.

Individually, the numbers are just as impressive:

--Valenzuela, after starting the season by pitching 42 innings without allowing an earned run, has won nine straight games and appears headed for the first 20-win season of his career.

Valenzuela leads the league in complete games with 14, is second in shutouts with five, fifth in innings pitched, fourth in strikeouts, and tied for fourth with Hershiser in ERA. He is 24 years old.

--Hershiser has thrown two one-hitters this season and four shutouts. He has yet to lose this season in Dodger Stadium, where his record is 8-0 with a 1.17 ERA. He has thrown only five home run pitches in 174 innings, fewest home runs allowed by any Dodger starter, and has struck out more than twice as many batters as he has walked. He is 26.

--Welch, who pitched just five innings the first two months because of a bad elbow, has the lowest ERA among the starters (2.10). He has two shutouts and six complete games in 15 starts, and had an eight-game winning streak. He is 28.

--Reuss, coming off surgery on both heels and an uncertain elbow, has three shutouts and would have three more were it not for his nettlesome habit of allowing home runs one out away from ending the game. Going into this season, he had the best ERA, 2.87, of any pitcher in the majors over the last five seasons, and his current ERA is a shade lower than that after his last five starts, in which he has allowed a total of five runs. Reuss is 36.

--Niedenfuer and Howell give the Dodgers two 90-m.p.h. fastballers who average a strikeout an inning. Most teams rely on one stopper and one set-up man in the bullpen. Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda has the luxury of alternating stoppers, which is reflected in their save totals. Niedenfuer has 14, Howell 12. Both are relative youngsters. Niedenfuer is 26, Howell 24.

--A sad footnote to this collection of Hollywood success stories is that Alejandro Pena, who last season had the best ERA in the league, hasn't pitched at all in 1985 after undergoing shoulder surgery. The Dodgers, however, still are hopeful that Pena, even though it's unlikely he'll ever cut loose again with a 94-m.p.h. fastball, will return to the mound one day. Pena is 26.

Other coaches of great pitching staffs in the past--Johnny Sain, Ray Miller, Roger Craig, to name a few of recent vintage--have achieved guru status. How often has Perranoski been asked to take a bow for the performance of his charges? Well, in 1983, he was elected to the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame.

"My whole career, I didn't have publicity," Perranoski said with no hint of regret. "When you pitch with Koufax and Drysdale, you go through that.

"I'm kind of quiet. I just do what I have to do."

He gets recognition, however, from his pitchers.

"He's not the type of guy who's going to get a lot of credit," said Niedenfuer, who describes his relationship with Perranoski as a father-son one and has often invited the coach to Sunday barbecues at his home.

"His pitching staff speaks for itself," Niedenfuer added.

Hershiser, who began working with Perranoski in the minor leagues in 1979, said: "My biggest compliment to Perry is that he doesn't overcoach.

"He sees when a guy is going well, and sees a guy when he's going bad, and he can tell the guy what's different, what he's doing wrong. He gets you back into your game real quick."

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