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Long Wait for Victory Ends for Springer

Baseball: Knuckleball pitcher, 31, throws 7 2/3 standout innings to win his first major league game.

July 27, 1996|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — Dennis Springer used to be only a part-time knuckleball pitcher. That is, he threw about 70% knuckleballs while delivering a mix of sliders, sinkers and fastballs the rest of the time.

The Angels liked the way his knuckleball floated, but disliked the way the slider, sinker and fastball did the same. So, when they signed him to a minor league contract this spring, they suggested he rely more heavily on the knuckleball.

The early results were encouraging. He began the spring with a string of 14 1/3 scoreless innings and opponents were hitting .163 against him. He faltered a bit as the season neared, however, and began the year at triple-A Vancouver.

He has been the second coming of Hoyt Wilhelm in Canada--where he was 10-3 with a 2.72 earned-run average--but in his first two trips down to Anaheim, he wasn't exactly as hot as a Southland July.

Friday night, with a backdrop of thunder and lightning that may have made him feel as if he was home in the great Northwest, Springer did his best to ensure his spot in the promised land.

After nine years spent mostly in the minor leagues, the 31-year-old right-hander picked up his first major league victory, pitching a career-high 7 2/3 innings while giving up four hits and three earned runs as the Angels beat the Brewers, 6-5.

"It was a long wait, but this feels outstanding," said Springer, who got a game ball from home plate umpire Durwood Merrill. "It's taken a long time to get here, but it's worth it."

Springer, whose only previous major league experience came last year with Philadelphia where he was 0-3, was up with the Angels for 12 days in April and yielded five earned runs in four relief appearances. He was back for nine days in May and gave up five earned runs in two outings, one as a starter and one as a reliever.

But after a couple of months of success in Vancouver, he arrived in Anaheim with a new sense of confidence. He started last Saturday against Seattle and gave up four runs in seven innings of a game the Angels eventually won, 5-4.

"It's pretty obvious that hitters are not comfortable against him," Manager Marcel Lachemann said. "He keeps you in the game and doesn't beat himself. And those were some pretty good hitters that were scuffling against him."

Milwaukee's Greg Vaughn, on a pace to drive in more than 130 runs this season, hit a solo homer off Springer leading off the seventh, but he was impressed.

"He had had a great knuckleball and kept us off balance with his fastball," Vaughn said.

Which is just the scenario the Angels had in mind when they persuaded Springer to sandwich only an occasional "on-speed" pitch between the knucklers.

"We worked ahead of the hitters most of the night and only walked the one guy," Springer said. "That's always going to be important."

Lachemann said earlier this week that Springer had to resist the temptation to try to hard to impress because he "knows that he won't get six or seven starts."

But the Lachemann sounded as if he might be willing to revise that statement Friday night. When asked if the addition of Springer and the return of Mark Langston would give the Angels a solid five-man staff, he said Springer would get another start.

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