Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Fernando Valenzuela

It was the day prior to the start of the 1981 season and the Los Angeles Dodgers' pitching rotation was decimated by injuries.

Jerry Reuss was hobbling with a strained left calf muscle, Burt Hooton was sidelined with an ingrown toe nail, Bob Welch was out with bone spurs in his right elbow, and Dave Goltz had a pulled groin.

Usually cheery and tremendously upbeat, Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda must have been feeling truly blue over the state of his starting pitching.

With no one else healthy enough to turn to, the Dodger skipper named Fernando [Anguamea] Valenzuela to start the season opener.

At first, it appeared to be an act of desperation, a move of last resort.

Sure, the chubby 20-year old rookie southpaw from Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico, had pitched extremely well during his brief trial at the end of the preceding season, winning his only two decisions and hurling 17.2 scoreless innings. But, he had never started a game in the big leagues and had just a year and a half of minor league experience under his rather large belt.

Upon reflection and hindsight, however, Lasorda's decision turned out to be a stroke of sheer brilliance.

Valenzuela was simply sensational in his Opening Day start, tossing a complete game, five-hit shutout as Los Angeles beat the Houston Astros, 2-0, before a crowd of 50,511 at Dodger Stadium.

He displayed the confidence and poise of a grizzled veteran.

"He wasn't one bit nervous," noted Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia at the time. "He's so cool out there. I don't think he even broke a sweat."

"He may be 20," Astros' manager Bill Virdon conceded, "but he pitches 30."

And he didn't stop there. He went on to lead the Dodgers to a world championship that season, winning the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards along the way, after posting a 13-7 record, 2.48 earned run average, while pacing the league in strikeouts (180), innings pitched (192.1), complete games (11) and shutouts (8).

The key to Valenzuela's success was his devastating screwball, a pitch he quickly mastered under the tutelage of teammate Bobby Castillo.

"It took Carl Hubbell all his life to perfect a screwball,"Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray once remarked. "Fernando picked it up between tacos."

Valenzuela pitched in the major leagues for 17 seasons with six different teams. But, he will always be remembered as a Dodger and in particular for the spectacular start to his career and the no-hitter he pitched on June 29, 1990 against the St. Louis Cardinals.

[1] Heisler, Mark. "Valenzuela's the Survivor ... and the Starter." Los Angeles Times, April 9, 1981, E1.
[2] Heisler, Mark. "Dodgers Put Welch on Hold." Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1981, 11.
[3] Heisler, Mark. "Did They Tell Him that Batting Practice Was Over?" Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1981, E1.
[4] Murray, Jim. "Fernando Has the Figure for Astros: 0." Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1981, E1.


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