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SHOWDOWN: Dodgers and Padres

Something Left

Dodgers Released Valenzuela Five Years Ago; Today He Can Knock Them Out of First Place

September 19, 1996|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — He is said to be 35, which is another story in itself.

For the present, it is enough to report that the toll of time and travel, his 2,800 major league innings and hundreds of others in Mexico and the minor leagues, have forced adjustments.

The screwball isn't as dominating, the fastball isn't as fast.

They are now thrown in concert with a cut fastball that bores in on right-handers and a curveball that comes out of the same plane as the screwball and gives him a breaking pitch for both sides of the plate.

The repertoire has changed, but what comes with it hasn't.

"He still has that lion's heart," Davey Lopes, a San Diego Padre coach, said of Fernando Valenzuela, his former Dodger teammate and now . . . well, the No. 5 starter in the San Diego rotation but otherwise the team's most reliable starter during the pressure of the second half.

Pretty much the ace, as he once was in another time and place, or as a reflective Fred Claire, the Dodger vice president, said of the years known as Fernandomania: "Storybook stuff."

Now, 16 years after his Los Angeles debut at 19, 5 1/2 years after his release by the Dodgers with a worn and ailing left arm in the spring of 1991, wearing his 10th uniform since he took the blue off for the last time, the indomitable Valenzuela is authoring a remarkable new chapter for which he hopes to supply a dramatic conclusion.

"I want to go back to the playoffs and World Series," Valenzuela said. "It would mean a lot to me to be able to do it this late in my career."

He faces a pivotal step on that road today, facing the Dodgers, the team of his youth, in the first of a four-game series that could determine the winner of the National League West, as well as the wild card.

For Valenzuela, there is no irony in this September matchup, only a job to do.

Doesn't matter that it's the Dodgers. Might as well be the Rockies or Giants.

"I have to keep my team in the game, give it a chance to win," he said, a pitch he has delivered so many times in so many places.

Said Tony DeMarco, his longtime agent: "Fernando believes his job is to use every ounce of strength and talent to repay the support of the Padres, not to beat his ex-team. He is not the type to say that he wants to kick anyone in the [rear]."

The line might be a long one if Valenzuela were to get started. Who has the time? Why waste the energy?

Said DeMarco:

"Fernando has continued to pitch because he loves the game and has always believed in himself. Many people buried him and said he should quit, but that is a word not in his vocabulary.

"He never lost faith in himself. He feels it would be sensational to contribute to a Padres victory because they gave him the opportunity others wouldn't."

This is how he has contributed:

--He is 8-0 over his last 11 starts and 13-7 with a 3.49 earned-run average overall.

--He has given up only six earned runs in the 31 innings of his last five starts.

--He was 8-3 with the Padres in 1995 and finished 6-0, meaning he has won 19 of his last 26 decisions since Aug. 22, 1995.

John Smoltz is the only National League pitcher with more wins (23) in that time, and Valenzuela's 13 this year are his most since he was 13-13 with the Dodgers in 1990.

"He's the consummate pitcher," Padre pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "He can throw anything he wants when he wants and where he wants, and it takes him all of one pitch to decipher what a hitter is sitting on and what will get him out."

Warthen and Valenzuela worked on mechanical changes after his signing by the Padres before the 1995 season: increasing his body turn and changing the release point of his screwball.

The pitching coach convinced Valenzuela that he needed to throw more curveballs, giving him a breaking pitch on the outside of the plate against left-handers to complement the screwball, which serves as a breaking pitch on the outside of the plate against right-handers, who are kept honest by the cut fastball.

Said Tony Gwynn, the thinking man's hitter: "I stand in the outfield trying to think it through with him, trying to guess what he's going to throw. Sometimes I can and sometimes I can't.

"I mean, sometimes I think he invents pitches. He's unbelievable. I say to him, 'Fernando, how do you do it?' He just shakes his head and smiles. The man is capable of beating anyone when he's on."

There may be no other staff with as many pitchers capable of lighting up the speed gun. The Padres can bring it, as they say.

"We've got guys with more dominant stuff, but they've learned things about pitching from Fernando," Warthen said. "He's one of the smartest pitchers I know, and maybe he's never gotten enough credit for that.

"He never gives in to a hitter, and he's worked his butt off. I don't know anyone who's been a more effective pitcher for five innings at a time, and I don't know anyone who wouldn't take him as their fourth or fifth starter."

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