Phil Niekro gave up two first-inning singles Sunday at Minneapolis, then was almost perfect the rest of the way as he pitched the Cleveland Indians to a 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins.
At 47, the oldest player in the majors, Niekro, in winning for the first time in more than a month, retired 25 of the last 26 batters he faced, including 24 in a row.
Niekro, hammered in his previous four starts, was almost to the point where Manager Pat Corrales was going to remove him from the rotation. The Indians feared Niekro had lost faith in his knuckleball, the pitch that made him a 300-game winner.
But now you might say that Niekro got a new grip on the situation.
The magnificent performance raised his record to 4-6. He was superb after Kent Hrbek's single scored Kirby Puckett from second in the first inning. He did not walk a batter and struck out four.
It was an especially impressive feat in the Metrodome, where pop flies sail out of the playing area for home runs, and against a team on its way to a new season home-run record.
"I just slowed myself down a lot," Niekro told United Press International. "I really wasn't zeroing in the way I was used to doing. I don't think I threw more than six or seven pitches that weren't knucklers."
After Niekro was pounded for 10 hits and 5 runs in 4 innings by Seattle Tuesday, Corrales said he thought Niekro had lost confidence in his ability to control his knuckler. He said he would stick with Niekro, at least for one more start.
Niekro admitted he finally "listened" to pitching coach Jack Aker, who dug into his archives for help.
"The biggest difference today was the grip," Akers said. "He found it out throwing on the sidelines, experimenting with various grips. He moved his thumb up and said, 'Heck, that's the way I used to throw it.' He really had the good knuckler going today." With two outs in the bottom of the first third baseman Brook Jacoby fumbled Gary Gaetti's grounder. He was the last Twin to reach base until Niekro hit Hrbek with two out in the bottom of the ninth.
The Indians scored all their runs early. A two-run home run by Mel Hall in the third completed the scoring.
Texas 5, Oakland 4--Gary Ward had three hits and drove in four runs at Arlington, Texas to do his part in keeping streaks alive for the Rangers and the A's.
It was Ward's two-run triple in the seventh that broke a 3-3 tie and assured the Rangers of their club-record 11th consecutive win at home. It sent the slumping A's to their 14th consecutive loss on the road, also a club record.
With the Angels losing, the surprising Rangers stretched their lead in the West to two games.
Dale Mohoric pitched two scoreless innings in relief to win his first. Greg Harris got the last four outs for his 14th save.
Chicago 10, Seattle 4--Jim Fregosi didn't care if it was a sloppily played game with five errors, he was just glad to win his debut as manager of the White Sox at Chicago.
Ozzie Guillen and Bobby Bonilla each drove in two runs as the White Sox made their 10 hits count.
"I don't care if it was sloppy, dirty or grubby as long as we won," Fregosi, the former Angel, said. "I was excited because the team was excited. We did some little things like advancing runners and hitting sacrifice flies."
Toronto 15, New York 1--One of the reasons the Yankees let Phil Niekro go was the belief that younger brother Joe (only 41) was the better pitcher. When Joe pitched brilliantly to build a 7-3 record by mid June, it appeared they were right.
But off his last two starts, the younger Niekro appears to be having problems with his knuckler. In this game at Toronto, Niekro fell apart after pitching three scoreless innings. He was removed with nobody out in the sixth after giving up seven hits and five walks and eventually was charged with seven runs. At that, it was better than his previous start last Tuesday. In that game against Boston, he gave up seven runs in just 2 innings.
Tony Fernandez and Ernie Whitt led the Blue Jay assault on the Yankees. Each hit a two-run home run and a two-run double to make it easy for Jimmy Key to improve his record to 5-5. The only Yankee run came when Willie Randolph hit his first homer of the season in the first inning.
Milwaukee 5, Detroit 4--Rookie Mike Felder ripped a line drive single to right with two out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth at Milwaukee to give the Brewers a victory.
Felder had three hits. His two-out single in the eighth started a tying two-run rally. Cecil Cooper drove in the two runs.
Baltimore 4, Boston 0--Storm Davis tired in the eighth inning at Boston after pitching brilliantly and Don Aase came in to stifle a rally and get his 19th save.
Davis had a one-hitter until Dwight Evans singled with one out in the eighth. After Tony Armas struck out, Rich Gedman singled. Aase came in and walked Mike Stenhouse to load the bases. But Marty Barrett lined to third to end the threat.