ST. LOUIS — Even after his most ignominious pitching outings this season, the times when he was hit hard and often and failed to make it out of the early innings, hardly anyone on the Dodgers had a discouraging word to say about Fernando Valenzuela.
But Wednesday at Busch Stadium, after Valenzuela gave up 7 runs in 5 innings of the Dodgers' 8-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, the unofficial Valenzuela protocol was breached. Veteran catcher Rick Dempsey, after watching the struggling pitcher, basically confirmed what some Fernando watchers have suspected. He said Valenzuela has lost about 10 m.p.h. off his fastball, and a reason for that was the number of innings and screwballs he has thrown. Dempsey doesn't think Valenzuela will return to previous form this season.
"I've only caught Freddy this year, but he's just not throwing as well as in the past," Dempsey said. "Maybe it's all the innings he's thrown. I think he's going to struggle the whole season. I mean, it's pretty tough to add 10 m.p.h. on your fastball all of a sudden.
"He pitches on intelligence now. But his fastball is not popping. It wasn't today. So, when he gets in a fastball situation, he can't rear back and throw it. Today, he wasn't hitting the corners. And Charlie (Williams, the home plate umpire,) definitely wasn't giving him the (strike) zone. So, he had to throw it down the middle. That, minus a little velocity and control, and you're in big trouble."
The loss was the Dodgers' second straight, reducing their National League West lead over San Francisco to 6 games. It also lowered Valenzuela's record to 5-7 and raised his earned-run average to a season-high 4.46.
Valenzuela, coming off two promising no-decisions in which he completed seven innings each time, did a major backslide against the Cardinals. He allowed 2 runs on 3 hits in the first inning and 5 runs on 6 consecutive hits in the third. Two hits were bloopers, another a bad hop, but Valenzuela was hit hard.
A revitalized Dodger offense, powered by home runs from Kirk Gibson and Mike Marshall, cut the 7-0 deficit to 7-5 by the fifth, but the Dodgers never could get even. Reliever Brian Holton gave up the Cardinals' eighth run, a solo homer by Terry Pendleton in the seventh.
But while pitching coach Ron Perranoski said he was impressed with Valenzuela's pitching, simply calling him "unlucky," Dempsey saw it differently.
"(The Cardinals) didn't exactly kill him, and we didn't play good defense behind him, but Freddy didn't have it today," Dempsey said. "He battles them out there. Say that for him.
"He's such a competitor that he's not afraid to go out there at 60% or 70% of the way he's been in the past and face hitters. If he's willing to stand there, I'll stand there with him."
But Dempsey, who caught Jim Palmer, Scott McGregor and Mike Boddicker in Baltimore, said he believes the 27-year-old Valenzuela eventually will return to form. He said he didn't think it will be this season but . . .
"Sure, he'll be back," Dempsey said. "He's not that old. He has pitched a lot of innings in his career. I think he just needs to gain another 5 to 7 m.p.h. on his fastball. But you can't do that in a couple months.
"I don't expect him to get it back soon or even this season. He needs a strengthening program and rest (during the off-season). He never wants to miss any start. But he will be back.
"I know Freddy. He'll find a way to be a 20-game winner again. Scotty McGregor went through the same thing. He was unhittable, then lost it. But he got it back. And when Freddy gets it back, some people are going to pay."
And what was Valenzuela's assessment of Wednesday's outing and his performance to date?
"I don't think it was a bad game or bad luck; it was just the game," Valenzuela said. "They made good contact, and the runs scored. I try to do my best, but the difference was the third inning. I feel fine. My arm is fine."
Manager Tom Lasorda said he does not think rest would help Valenzuela, so he is scheduled to make his next start Monday night in San Francisco, as planned. Valenzuela said he needs work, not rest.
"I feel fine every time out," Valenzuela said. "I felt as strong today as every outing." Valenzuela did not start the game auspiciously. He walked leadoff hitter Vince Coleman on four pitches. Dempsey threw out Coleman trying to steal, but the Cardinals strung together four singles for two runs.
After retiring the side in the second inning and getting the first out of the third, Valenzuela gave up six straight hits, all but one singles. Jose Oquendo and Tom Pagnozzi had run-scoring bloop singles, but both Pendleton's single to left and Tony Pena's double to left were hit hard.
Even though he gave up 7 runs to a team that did not score more than 3 in any of its previous 12 games, Valenzuela remained in the game for 2 more innings without further damage.