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SHOWDOWN: Dodgers and Padres | BASEBALL ROSS NEWHAN

Nomo Is Now Best of the Best

September 19, 1996|ROSS NEWHAN

If the mania has subsided some, the magic that helped produce it is still there.

Hideo Nomo's improbable no-hitter in the high-altitude asylum known as Coors Field on Tuesday night dramatically underscored the fact that his sophomore season with the Dodgers has been even better than his rookie-of-the-year campaign.

His passive reaction after striking out Ellis Burks for the final out also underscored the stoic stability he brings to a pitching staff that has provided the Dodgers with stability throughout an emotional season and begins today's showdown series with the San Diego Padres arguably as baseball's best.

It is there in the statistical rankings that find the Dodgers with a fractional edge over the touted and proven Atlanta Braves for the best earned-run average in the major leagues.

In a record year for home runs, with ERAs rivaling the deficit, the Dodgers are at a sane and respectable 3.475, slightly better than Atlanta's 3.484.

It is also there in the views of veteran New York Met scout Harry Minor, who put it this way:

"If there's a better staff than the Dodgers, I'd like to see it. I mean, the difference is the depth.

"You've got guys like Chan Ho Park and Antonio Osuna throwing 97 miles per hour in mop-up and setup roles. You've got five or six guys who are just overpowering.

"You're talking about lighting up the speed gun consistently. It boggles the mind."

The lights dimmed some for Pedro Astacio on Wednesday. Perhaps the Dodgers' most consistent starter, Astacio was a 6-4 loser to the Rockies in the series finale.

Nevertheless, the Dodgers escaped the horrors of Coors without having to tax the bullpen going into the border war against San Diego.

Amid the pressure of the last 29 games, Dodger starters are an impressive 16-2, and no one has been better down the stretch than Nomo, pitching into the seventh inning in seven consecutive starts and 13 of his last 14.

Even Bob Dole has been impressed. The Republican candidate for president said Wednesday he intends to throw a no-hitter between now and election day, just as Nomo did for the "Brooklyn Dodgers."

Dole seems to have had a hard time keeping up. Hitters have had a hard time catching up.

In his second season, they have tried to attack Nomo early in the count, but his command and control have generally remained as impervious as his demeanor.

He is now 16-10 with a 3.16 ERA that ranks in the top 10. He is second in strikeouts behind Atlanta's John Smoltz.

Amid the fan and media frenzy of last year, Nomo was 13-6, second in the league in ERA at 2.54 and first in strikeouts. "If he gets ahead of you [in the count], you're done," Minor said. "It's almost impossible to lay off his split finger.

"I came back from the Angel game in time to catch the last inning on TV last night. He went 2 and 2 on Burks and I said, 'Don't throw a strike here,' and he didn't.

"He threw that splitter in the dirt, and Burks couldn't lay off [swinging and missing for the final out].

"I mean, I didn't think I'd ever see a no-hitter in Coors, but the thing about Nomo is that he never gives in.

"He's always hitting the corners. He throws very few pitches down the middle, and his splitter is just plain nasty."

Nomo's rookie award of last year was deceiving. He fit the definition of the rule and was a toss-up winner over Atlanta's Chipper Jones, but he was far from a rookie in the context of experience and poise. He was coming off five years at the major league level in Japan. He had the stuff, physically and mentally. He knew how to adjust, culturally and professionally.

He demonstrated that again in the third inning of his no-hitter, when he began to pitch out of a stretch position--as if there were runners on base--rather than using the exaggerated turn of his full delivery. The reason: Nomo's radical turn was causing him to slip on a rubber still wet from the pregame rain and he was getting better traction, a more stable push, when he began using the stretch.

"Hideo knows what he's doing at all times," pitching coach Dave Wallace said.

The Dodgers obviously knew what they were doing in importing Nomo, though they had never directly scouted him. He has become the anchor of the rotation, if not the ace, and the Japanese leagues are now flush with U.S. scouts.

The New York Yankees recently paid the Seibu Lions $350,000 for the rights to Katsuhiro Maeda, the orange-haired Dennis Rodman of Japanese pitchers. The Boston Red Sox are believed to have a 1997 deal in place for pitcher Robinson Checo of the Hiroshima Carp. And several clubs are salivating over the post-'97 free agency of Hideki Irabu.

Said Met Manager Bobby Valentine, who saw Irabu pitch while managing in Japan in 1995: "I would carry him over on my back."

Nomo alone hasn't had to carry the Dodgers, nor would he allow them to carry him off after his no-hitter. He did eventually smile--a rare display of emotion by the inscrutable right-hander, or any pitcher in Coors Field.

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