Thursday, April 23, 2009

Random (still) Thursday: June 19, 1990, Houston vs. LA

Tonight, The Common Man almost violated his sacred vow, even though it's not even a week old. But it is still Thursday dammit, and opine he will about random baseball-ness. After work, The Common Man went out with colleagues, his first post-work bash, and almost slipped away into drunken anonymity. But he didn't. He stuck it out. He came back.

Indeed, The Common Man could have slipped away, conveniently forgetting about his writing obligations and becoming a blip in the memory...much like this week's foray into random's extensive library. For whatever reason, this week The Common Man was shuttled to a June 19, 1990 contest between the Astros and the Dodgers, where former Icon Fernando Valenzuela outdueled an almost-done Mike Scott.

Indeed, the game itself has essentially been lost to history. Nobody cares about a random contest in 1990 between two also-rans. Let's see, interesting notes from the boxscore... Eric Yelding was still batting leadoff and playing short for the 'Stros, and Craig Biggio was still catching (and batting 3rd and stealing two bases!). Glenn Wilson (ugh) was the cleanup hitter. The Dodgers' lineup was pretty non-descript, except that Tim Crews (who would later die in a boating accident with Steve Olin (who also perished) and Bobby Ojeda) pitched an inning of scoreless relief.

But really, the game mostly is remarkable for its pithcers, two icons of the 1980s, both of whom were in their last run of success with their clubs. Scott had been a 2nd round draft choice of the Mets in 1976, and debuted with the club in '79. After a few seasons of mixed results, Scott was sent to the Astros for 4th outfielder Danny Heep. In Houston, Scott would perfect his split-finger fastball and, between 1985 and 1989, become one of the great pitchers in the National League. He won 86 games in those 5 seasons, peaking in 1986 with an 18-10 record and a 2.22 ERA in more than 275 IP. He also struck out 306 batters that year. But injuries took their toll. By 1990, Scott was a league average pitcher, posting a 9-13 record with a 98 ERA+, and in 1991 he threw his final two games before retiring.

Valenzuela, of course, was not just an icon but a phenomenon when he burston the scene with the Dodgers in 1981 (though he debuted in 1980). Fernando-mania has been well documented, but only really lasted until 1986. By 1987, Fernando too had become a league average starter, worn down from overuse and injuries. In 1990, Fernando was barely hanging on, suffering through his second below-average season in three. Following the season, he was released by the Dodgers and signed with the Angels, for whom he pitched two games. Afte a stint in the minors, unlike Scott, Fernando managed to work his way back, winning 13 games for the Padres in 1996, but was never the same pitcher as he was in the early 80s.

Scott and Fernando were linked in many ways, aside from this random game in 1990, toward the end of their effectiveness. Both were known, essentially, for one dominant pitch. Scott had his splitter, which he learned in 1984 from Roger Craig (according to Bill James and Rob Neyer's Guide to Pitchers. The book goes on to say that, "Immediately, he became one of the better pitchers in the league.
During the successful part of Scott’s career, and particularly in 1986, everybody who faced Scott was convinced that his best pitch was, rather than a Splitter, an illegal pitch that achieved by scuffing the ball. The Mets were especially adamant about this, but Scott was never caught in the act." Indeed, replays show that Scott was damn near unhittable through those years, and the break on his splitter was incredible, perhaps unnaturally so.

Valenzuela's screwball, meanwhile, was a pitch that become legendary for its own natural goodness. Diving down and away from right-handed batters, the pitch made Fernando tougher on them than he was on lefties (who, frankly, he was also pretty good against). Fernando apparently learned the pitch from Bobby Castillo in the late 70s in the Dodgers' system, but ended up having much more success with it than his greatly mustachioed colleague. But the screwball wears down an arm, and only extensive rest and recuperation would put life back into Fernando's left arm.

The two were also linked by their performances in 1990 and 1991. Suffering from disappointing seasons in 1990, both stuck out just two performances in '91 before being shown the door. Scott's exit was permanent, and Valenzuela was finished as an effective pitcher for five or six years before his Padres comeback.

In the game in question, Valenzuela outdueled Scott, going seven strong innings and striking out 7. His only mistake came in the 7th, when he allowed a homer to light-hitting Casey Candaele. Scott gave up five runs in six innings, but didn't pitch poorly. In the fourth inning, two errors and a fielders choice (on which no out was recorded) were bunched together, and four unearned runs came home. Then again, it's not clear he pitched well, as Scott allowed a homer to Eddie Murray in the 5th and only struck out one in the game, perhaps a sign that his shoulder would never be right again. Unlike The Common Man, who, despite a headache tomorrow morning, will be right as rain by noon and three Diet Cokes.

1 comment:

lar said...

Good job sticking to your vow. It may not have been the most famous or exciting of games, but, you're right, the matchup is intriguing for its pitting of two former greats late in their career.

One interesting thing to note... Only two starts later, on June 29, 1990, Fernando would pitch a no-hitter. On the same day as Dave Stewart, actually. I always loved that Fernando was able to pitch such a special game so late in his career.

Good stuff as always, TCM.