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A Very Good Sign for Nomo

Baseball: Despite missing squeeze, he strikes out 10 and knocks in go-ahead run for the Dodgers, who take over first in NL West.

August 16, 1996|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — With the bases loaded in the second inning Thursday night at Busch Stadium, Dodger Manager Bill Russell ordered the sign for a squeeze play relayed to Hideo Nomo.

Maybe Russell should have used an interpreter.

The Japanese pitcher missed or misinterpreted the sign, taking a strike and forcing Raul Mondesi to scramble back to third.

No problem.

On the next pitch, Nomo smashed an infield single that was too much for third baseman Gary Gaetti to handle, driving in the go-ahead run.

It was that kind of a night for Nomo, who didn't miss much besides that sign as he improved to 12-9, struck out 10 and pitched the Dodgers past the Cardinals, 5-2, and into first place in the National League West by percentage points over the San Diego Padres.

At 64-57, the Dodgers have a winning percentage of .5289. The Padres, losers to the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday, are at .5285.

The gap between these two clubs certainly seemed much wider a week ago, with the Dodgers on the bottom side, seemingly bound on a trip to disaster.

The Dodgers left town 12 days ago 1 1/2 games behind San Diego. But three games into this nine-game trip, they had fallen 2 1/2 behind the Padres and below Colorado Rockies into third place in the division, losing consecutive games by a combined score of 21-6.

But beginning with a victory by Nomo last Saturday in Cincinnati, the Dodgers came back to win five of the last six games, giving them a 6-3 record on the trip. After splitting in Pittsburgh, they took three of four in Cincinnati and two of three in St. Louis.

"Before, we'd play well for four or five games," first baseman Eric Karros said, "then go in the tank for four or five games.

"This time, we won four in a row, but didn't let that one game where we fell apart [a 6-1 loss Wednesday] carry over. That's something we haven't been able to do."

What was especially impressive about Thursday night's victory was the fact that two of the key Dodgers in the current surge, catcher Mike Piazza and third baseman Tim Wallach, didn't play. Piazza got his regular weekly rest day and Wallach sat out because of soreness in the broken rib on his left side.

But other Dodger bats filled the void.

Karros had two hits, including an RBI double. Dave Hansen, filling in for Wallach, had an RBI single, Todd Hollandsworth doubled in a run, Nomo collected two hits and Greg Gagne showed a flash of power with a home run, his eighth, which bounced on top of the center-field wall 402 feet away and went over.

Gagne kept an eye on the ball as he ran to first.

"I was just hoping it was not going to be an Eric Karros hit," Gagne said with a laugh, referring to the ball Karros hit in Cincinnati that rolled along the top of the outfield wall and back onto the field for a double.

But although the Dodgers had more than enough firepower to beat St. Louis starter Mike Morgan (4-6), this night belonged to Nomo.

He doesn't draw the huge crowds and create the Nomomania of last year. But quietly, he has a chance to surpass last season.

He is only one victory behind last season's total. The 10 strikeouts give him 183, 53 behind last year. Only in earned-run average is there a big difference. He finished at 2.54 last season. He is a full run worse this season at 3.54.

But Nomo has retained his humility. Asked about missing the squeeze sign, yet winding up with a hit, Nomo said, through an interpreter, "I was lucky."

What made Nomo particularly effective Thursday was not luck but control. Coming off his last performance, in which he walked seven Reds in 5 2/3 innings, Nomo went eight innings against the Cardinals without issuing a walk.

With the humidity hanging in the air and Nomo's pitch count at 105, Russell handed the ball to his closer, Todd Worrell, in the ninth and Worrell picked up his 31st save, one shy of his Dodger record from last season.

The long and winding road had finally led the Dodgers back to the top.

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