Sunday, July 5, 2015

Oh, How Different Things Might Have Been: J.R. Richard and the 1980 Astros

History is fixed.  It is unchangeable.  Nothing can change the past.  You can watch Carlton Fisk hop down the line a million times and he will still waive the ball fair.  No matter how many times Todd Worrell touches that bag, Don Denkinger is still going to call Jorge Orta safe.  Bill Buckner is never going to field that little roller behind the bag and Mitch Williams will not look back over his shoulder to see Joe Carter's fly ball being caught.

The winners and losers in the history of the game will always be winners or losers.  But this series will explore some "what if's".  What if a player who missed the World Series hadn't gotten injured?  What if a play that turned a World Series had been completed differently?

We have already looked at  the 1905 Philadelphia Athletics, the 1910 Cubs, the 1962 Dodgers, the 1968 Tigers and last week we saw how the loss of  Jim Rice may have hurt the 1975 Red Sox.  This week we will look at how J.R. Richard may have saved the season of the 1980 Houston Astros:

This was new territory for the Houston Astris.  Since 1962 when they entered the National League, only three times had they finished in the top three of their division.  In 1972 they were third but still 10 ½ games out.  In 1976 they were third, still 22 games behind the Reds and Dodgers. 1977 was another third place finish 17 games out of first.  This was different.  The 1979 Astros were actually leading the pack.  On July 4th they had a 10 ½ game lead and had just won their sixth straight game and second straight against the Big Red Machine.  From there they stumbled.  They lost 15 of the next 17.
They maintained the podition until August 27th but when they lost to Montreal on August 28th, the Reds took over first place.  Houston managed to climb back in the lead on occasion but never separated themselves by more than ½ a game.  Still, the Reds didn’t seem to be able to pull away either and with just 4 games left to play they were a game and a half back.  Two straight losses to Atlanta along with two straight Reds wins clinched the Reds victory but Houston won their final two and finished only a game and a half behind the powerful Reds.  It was the first time Houston had finished the season less than 10 games back.

There was finally a hope for next year.

Their offense could certainly have used some improvements.  Right Fielder Denny Walling had played in 82 games and hit .327 but no other regular had hit above .290.  Their power numbers were dreadful with no player in double digits (the team leader was Jose Cruz with 9).  They were a speedy group and they kept their strikeouts down.  But how did they compete with such a poor offense?
Pitching.  Joe Niekro won 21 games and J.R. Richard won 18.  Niekro was the veteran and Richard was the phenom.  This marked Richard’s fourth straight year at 18 or more victories.  His fastball was spectacular.  No one could hit it.  His improvement into a pitcher was continuing and Astros fans looked to Richard as the foundation of their future.

There was finally hope for next year.

As spring training started in 1980 Astros fans had one more reason to be excited.  This was the new era of free agency and with a few pen strokes a team could change their fortunes over night.  The Astros did just that.  They made a big splash in the free agent market adding the Reds’ leader himself, Joe Morgan and another compliment to the Niekro/Richard rotation.  In his eight years with the Angels, Nolan Ryan had won seven strike out crowns and had led the halos to their first ever division title.  When Ryan went to work he finished his job and had already gained a reputation as unhittable.
With Niekro, Ryan and Richard as a 1-2-3 punch the Astros became the favorites in the NL West.  Richard earned the opening day start against the Dodgers and got the win 3-2. He threw 8 innings, allowed only 2 hits and 1 earned run.  His second start against the Braves was not quite as dominant .  He allowed 4 hits and 1 run in 5 innings but left with no decision.   He would beat the Dodgers again on April 19th to put him at 2-0 for the year and reduce his ERA after three starts to 0.82.  He was tremendous that day.  He allowed no runs on one hit (a  two out 4th inning single to Reggie Smith) and three walks.

Richard dominated the month of April.  He was at 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA.  He was brought back to earth with a 1/3 innings appearance where he allowed 5 hits, walked 1 and allowed 4 runs.  On May 10th Richard pitched 9 strong innings allowing only 7 hits (3 of them in the 4th), 2 walks and 2 runs.  He struck out 8 Braves.  In 4 of the 9 innings  he retired the Braves in order.  After nine innings the game was tied so the Astros went to their bullpen.  The Astros were able to scratch out a run in the Top of the 11th and would win but Richard got a no decision after throwing a great game. 

May 16 continued his stretch of tough luck.  He threw 8 strong innings and allowed only 6 hits and walked 1.  Dick Ruthven of the Phillies did even better throwing 9 shutout innings and Richard lost 3-0 dropping his record to 4-2.  The tough stretch continued to May 21 when he lost 5-1 to the lowly Mets.  While they had started May in first place by a game and a half, nearing June the Astros were now 3 games back.
Then just like that, on May 26, things turned around and Richard was off again like a shot from a Colt .45.  He won against the Padres on May 26 allowing only 5 hits in 7 innings and only one unearned run.  May 31 was a complete game shutout against the Giants in which he only allowed three hits.  No Giant reached second base.  It was a dominating performance and Richard improved to 6-3.

He faced the same Giants on June 6 and the results were mostly the same.  9 innings pitched.  Complete Game.  Shut out.  Only three hits allowed.  Still no Giants reached second base.  Yet, if it was somehow possible, Richard was even more dominant this time.  0 walks.  13 strikeouts.  With one out in the second, Milt May singled.  It was the Giants’ second hit of the game.  From  May’s single until a two out single by Joe Strain in the 9th, Richard retired 22 consecutive batters.

He threw his third straight complete game and shutout on June 11.  If you could find any weakness in Richard over the three starts it could only be that he allowed a few Cubs as far as second base in the third straight shutout but still, no one scored.   He was nearly unbeatable and his willingness to eat up innings saved the bullpen for times it was needed.  You know, on days when superman wasn’t on the mound.

But all those innings appeared to be taking a toll.  He started on June 5th and the Astros gave him a nice three run lead in the first but the Cubs were all over Richard.  A double by Ivan de Jesus and a double by Bill Buckner  put the Cubs on the board.  The Astros scored 3 in the second giving Richard a 6-1 lead and Richard settled down.  He batted for himself in the 6th, still ahead 6-1, but when the Astros took the field for the bottom of the inning, Richard was replaced by Joaquin Andujar on the mound.  It was a strange decision but after three complete games and a large lead, Astros fans could rest easy that J.R. could rest up for his next start.  The Astros were rolling and led the NL West by 3 games and Richard’s win over the Cubs was the second win in what would become a six game win streak. 

Richard was unusually hitable in his next start against the Reds.  He allowed two base runners in the first (on an error and a walk) but kept the Reds scoreless.  He allowed a single in the second but was able to work around it.  Art Howe gave him a 2-0 lead with a Home Run in the third but the Reds answered and it looked like Richard was struggling a bit.  He loaded the bases with two out and allowed a bases clearing double to Johnny Bench.  The Astros failed to answer and left two runners n in the bottom of the third.  The 4th was when Astros fans started to worry.  A fly ball out, a single and a walk and suddenly Richard was removed.  Randy Niemann replaced him and immediately gave up a triple and three straight singles.  By the end of the inning the Astros trailed 7-2 and concern focused on Richard who had now left two starts early.  Richard would say it was  “arm fatigue” and with the number of complete games he threw it was no wonder.

Richard said in his autobiography: "Boy, playing the first few months of that season was fun.  The team was doing well, we were battling for first place, and we had Nolan Ryan and Joe Niekro and me pitching well."

He pitched 6 innings on July 3 and got the win to improve to 10-4 and the Astros needed the win.  Their lead in the West had shrunk to a game and a half.  The win ended a three game losing streak and the Astros would lose the next three.

On July 8 the leagues paused for the All Star Break.  It was clear that Richard, despite the three short starts recently, was the dominant pitcher in the league and he was selected to start the game for the NL in Dodger Stadium.  ABC started their coverage of the game by telling the audience as Richard warmed up, that Richard was 10-4.  “He comes in, however,”  Keith Jackson said “after struggling in his last couple of starts.  He has been experiencing stiffness in his right forearm.  He uses the word fatigue to describe it.”  Richard easily retired Willie Randolph of the Yankees on a ground ball.  He walked Rod Carew, who stole second, but he got Fred Lynn to ground out and struckout Reggie Jackson to end the first.  The NL went in order in the bottom of the first.  Richard walked Ben Oglivie to start the second but struck out Carlton Fisk and got Graig Nettles to pop out.  Bucky Dent singled to send Oglivie to third but  Richard kept the game scoreless by striking out the pitcher Steve Stone of the Orioles.

That was all for J.R.  He had impressed the country and had fans outside of Houston saying “I wish our best pitcher had a dead arm that good.”

Richard writes: "I was chosen for my first All Star team.  Finally.  Getting the start was a thrill., and the American League had so many great player.  They had Rod Carew, Carlton Fisk, and Reggie Jackson.  That's three Hall of Famers in the starting lineup.  What a powerful hitter Jackson was.  It was so enjoyable to be in that position.  I went out there thinking, This game is mine, even though I knew i wouldn't pitch that long because it was an All Star Game.  I was totally focused.  I put on a new hat and put it on just right.  I figured the opposition couldn't touch me...After the game ended with a National League win, we all rejoined our teams for the second half of the season.  I had every  reason to believe that I was in the middle of my best  season and that the second half held great things in store for me."

Still, Richard felt something wasn’t right.  He complained of pain in the arm, fatigue, discomfort.  The Astros didn’t completely ignore it but it was hard to take it seriously.  How could someone with the pain that Richard was describing pitch that well?

Richrd's biographer Lew Freedman stated: "Leading up to the All Star Game Richard wasn't even sure he wold be able to compete.  His arm felt dead and flat when he unleashed his speedy pitches.  Three days after the game while still in Los Angeles, Richard met with Dr. Frank Jobe., one of the most renowned sports medicine specialists in the United States.  While J.R. did not obtain a clear diagnosis, he said that Jobe recommended he not pitch for 30 days."

The Houston press and fans (and management) were not amused.  The rumors started.  J.R. was jealous of Ryan.  The implication was Ryan came in from nowhere with the high salary and headlines while J.R. had been with the team forever.  Yet neither J.R. or Nolan ever had anything negative to say to each other.  In fact J.R. said in his autobiography that he regretted not having more communication with Ryan and Ryan wrote the forward for the book.  There was no jealousy from J.R.  The next rumor was laziness.  Why did J.R. want to take off 30 days in a pennant race?  How could he just leave the game like that?  The Houston press was angry with him.

He started again on July 14 against the Braves.  He retired the first seven he faced then allowed a double in the third.  He retired the next 2.  He hit a double of his own in his first at bat but was left there.  But it was still there.  That odd feeling in the arm.  He walked Dale Murphy to start the 4th but got Chris Chambliss to ground out.  It would have been a double play but an error by Craig Reynolds allowed Chambliss to reach second.  That was it.  Richard could go no further.  First Baseman Enos Cabell came over to the mound.  Cabell says: "He said, 'Man I can't feel my fingrs.  I'm throwing 100 miles per hour and I can't feel the ball.  I might kill someone."

Freedman explains: "J.R. did not want to come out for the fourth inning, and manager Bill Virdon urged him to keep trying.  Virdon apparently did not believe that J.R. was injured.  In the absence of a hard medical proof, he was a doubter.  After the game when sportswriters inquired about the reason for Richard's early departure, Astros team officials told them he had a stomach ache."

The Astrodome was a ball of confusion.  Richard seemed to be cruising and had great stuff but his arm would not allow him to go any further.  As Gordie Plodson walked to the mound to relieve him, Richard slowly walked to the dugout.  Furstrated, confused.  This was the season of his life and yet for some reason he just could not get his arm right.  There were other issues too.  His vision was blurry.  He was having trouble seeing the signs from the catcher.  His fingers felt numb.  After that last pitch he couldn’t even grip the ball.

The Astros put him on the DL and took a wait and see attitude.  Rest would fix everything.

The problem was it didn’t get better.  It got worse.  He would tell anyone who would listen how badly it hurt.  No one seemed to believe him.  He went to a chiropractor.  It didn’t help.  It just redistributed the pain.  After visiting the chiropractor he went to the Astros training facility.  The Astros were on the road but J.R. was cleared for light activity.

During the tranining session he now had a serious head ache and felt weak.  He told the doctors what he was feeling but still there was disbelief.  In moments things got scary.  Richard explained in his autobiography: I was inside the Astrodome doing a workout so I could be in some kind of shape when I came off the disabled list.  All of a sudden I felt a  high-pitched tone ringing in my left ear.  .  And then I threw a couple of more pitches and became nauseated.  A few minutes later, I threw a couple more pitches, then the feeling got so bad I was lising my equilibrium,  I went down to the Astroturf.  I had a headache, some confusion in my mind, and I felt  weakness in my body...I was lying on the floor of the Astrodome and I knew an ambulance was on its way.  Before I passed out, I had all kinds of things runnng through my mind, but the chief one was, What's wrong?"

He had suffered a stroke that was very nearly fatal.

The Astros led the division by a game and a half on July 30th.  The lead disappeared quickly.  They lost 5 of 7 to fall half a game behind  the Dodgers.    They fell back by half a game but were able to somehow regain the lead by a half game during the losing streak.  They lost four straight, including a three game sweep by the Giants and fell behind by a game.  Richard had been replaced in the rotation by Gordie Pladson, a little used pitcher who had spent the early part of the year in the minors.    It was not pretty. He would end up 0-4 with three no decisions.  Also filling in was Juaquin Andujar, who would go 2-3 with three no decisions in his starts following Richard’s placement on the DL. 
A 10 game win streak in mid August should have put them up comfortably but it gave them only a three game lead.  The lead in the division went back and forth.  The Dodgers would go ahead and the Astros would come back.  The Astros would go ahead and the Dodgers would pull back even.

Bill Virdon was still hoping to get J.R. back but was realistic: "You don't replace a pitcher like J.R. but if there's one area  we could stand any loss, it's pitching.  We'll go with a four man rotation of Ryan, Ken Forsch, Joe Niekro and Vern Ruhle.  We're more concerned with J.R.'s health now."
Starting with a September 20th, 3-2 win over the Giants, Houston went on to win 9 of 12. With just three games left in the season the Astros needed just one more win.  Their competition in the final weekend was the second place Dodgers.   Win one game and Houston made the playoffs for the first time.  Lose all three and the Dodgers would force a one game playoff for the West Division crown.

In the first game of the series, a Friday night at Dodgers Stadium, Ken Forsch faced off against Don Sutton.  Sutton struggled, working out of a bases loaded jam in the first and allowing a run in the second.  Forsch, on the other hand, retired the first ten Dodgers in order.  With one out in the 4th the Dodgers went to work and eventually scored a run.  Sutton settled down and the game was tied 1-1 after 7.  Houston scratched out a run in the 8th and heading into the bottom of the 9th the Astros were just three outs away from the division title.  Jay Johnstone grounded out to start the inning and there were just two outs left.  Rick Monday followed that with a single.  In the days before closers were a part of every team, Forsch was allowed to stay in the game.  Dusty Baker grounded a ball to second base that could have ended the game but an error allowed everyone to reach safely.  If this were Boston or Chicago, talk of the curse would be rampant.  Steve Garvey flew out for the second out and now the Astros were one out away from their first post season appearance.  Next up was Ron Cey, the Penguin.  Cey punched a single to Center Field and Rudy Law, who had pinch run for Rick Monday, scored to tie the game.  A Pedro Guerrero ground ball ended the inning but the Dodgers were clinging to their season’s life by the skin of their teeth. Although Forsch had been given room to work, Tom Lasorda had removed Don Sutton for an unknown kid with a long name.  He had made his first appearance just a few weeks ago.  He got his first decision on September 30th.  Now, in just his tenth major league appearance, Fernando Valenzuela held the season of the Dodgers in his hands.  He had pitched the 9th and had allowed two base runners but no runs.  Playing with house money at this point, Valenzuela shut down the Astros in the 10th.  Catcher Joe Ferguson came up with the season on the line.  He made a quick end to Forsch.  A solo Home Run to lead off the home 10th sent the Astros home tired and defeated and the Dodgers with a sense of a miracle in the offing.

Game 2 saw 11-9 Nolan Ryan face off against 17-5 Jerry Reuss.  The Dodgers reached Ryan for a run in the second.  The Astros tied it up in the top of the 4th and once again the tension set in.  Leading off the 4th Steve Garvey homered giving the Dodgers another lead.  Thanks to a few strong innings and two timely turned double plays the Dodgers held that 2-1 lead through the game and although Ryan allowed only 6 hits, 2 runs and walked none in 7 innings, the Dodgers survived one more day.

Now the Dodgers were thinking miracle and the Astros were thinking disaster.

If only they had J.R. Richard to go out and clinch this thing, or at worst to shut down the Dodgers if a one game playoff were needed.  With everything on the line the Astros turned to Vern Rhule and the Dodgers to Burt Hooton.

After a walk and a steal by Terry Puhl, Hooton got through the first.  Rhule retired the Dodgers in order.   Now the Astros went to work and looked like the miracle at Chavez Ravine was being cancelled.  Cesar Cedno bunted for a single and stole second.  Art Howe attempted to sacrifice Cedeno to third but an error by Hooton allowed both runners to reach safely.  Alan Ashby scored Cedeno with a single and Craig Reynolds scored Howe with a single.  Just like that, two runs in, no one out and two on base, Hooton was gone and the season again hung in the balance.  Rhule allowed a lead off bunt single in the second but retired the next three in order.    Ruhle had already impacted the 1975 baseball season when he broke the hand of Jim Rice with an inside pitch.  Now he looked to impact the 1980 post season.   With two scoreless innings already under his belt, the Dodgers started the 3rd with a single.  Oddly, that was all for Ruhle.  Andujar came on and retired the Dodgers.  In the 4th, Houston added a run to take a 3-0 lead.  They needed just 18 outs to reach the playoffs.  With one out in the third Los Angeles cut the lead to 3-1 and Joe Sambito replaced Andujar.  Sambito got a double play and escaped further damage.  Fernando pitched two more scoreless innings and the Dodgers cut into the lead with a run in the 7th.  The Astros still held the lead entering the bottom of the 8th, cutting the out count down to 6.  A ground ball to third should have cut that count to 5 but an error allowed Garvey to reach safely.  As they had all weekend, the Dodgers made Houston pay.  The Penguin launched a two run Home Run to give the Dodgers the lead.  The Astros mounted a threat in the 9th.  Jeffrey Leonard pinch hit to start the 9th.  He flew out to left and the Astros had two outs left to avoid a one game playoff.  Gary Woods became the second pinch hitter of the inning and reached safely on a single.  Terry Puhl grounded to second, forcing Woods, but the Astros were able to avoid the double play and keep the inning alive.  Enos Cabell followed with a  single and Puhl moved to third.  With the tying run just 90 feet away both teams made a move.  Lasorda went to Don Sutton, normally a starter, to pitch and the Astros went to Denny Walling as a pinch hitter.  Walling grounded the ball to second base and the teams would play one more.

This was now getting worrisome.  Coming into the weekend series the Astros needed just one win.  They had won 6 of their last 7 and three straight coming in.  If they had J.R. and had they been able to win their first or second game this series they could have set their rotation for the NLCS.  Imagine Richard, Ryan, Niekro, Ruhle.  What a rotation that would have been in the playoffs.  Now, they had used Ryan and Ruhle and would need to use Niekro just to make the playoffs.  The Dodgers started Dave Goltz.  Niekro was brilliant.  He pitched a complete game allowing only 6 hits and 2 walks resulting in only 1 earned run.  Dave Goltz was not brilliant.  He allowed 8 hits and 4 runs in three innings.  Rick Sutcliffe pitched 1/3 of an inning and allowed 3 runs on 1 hit.  It was over quickly but Niekro threw the whole game. Next up would be the Phillies, who had struggled to close out their own division against pesky Montreal, however, they didn’t need the extra day to do it. 

Richard wrote: "You never really know about those things.  You'd like to think you could have made a difference.  I know I would have pitched against the Dodgers  at the end of the regular season when it came down to a one game playoff and I would have pitched against the Phillies."

If the Astros had their ace the matchups would have likely been this:  Richard vs Carlton, Niekro vs Dick Ruthven,  Nolan Ryan vs Larry Christensen.  The NLCS that followed was likely the greatest in history.  Four of the five games in the series went extra innings, including the deciding game.  Any one thing could have tipped the favor in the direction of either team.  If the Astros had J.R  Richard it is likely they would have had enough to overcome the Phillies.  Instead the Phillies scratched out a 10th inning win in the final game to earn their name of the “cardiac kids”. 

Many of the players themselves felt J.R. was the difference.  Ryan wrote: "Philadelphia beat us and went on to win the World Series.  It is always a tough thing to assume things in hindsight, but if we had a healthy J.R. Richard down the stretch and in the playoffs, it is possible that it would have been Houston and not Philadelphia winning the series in 1980.

J.R. would try a come back in 1981 but the effects of the stroke had been too damaging.  He had suffered through a deep depression for the first few weeks after the stroke but worked hard to get back on the mound.  He tried to work through poor vision on one side and nearly got hit by a line drive back up the middle in spring training.  He would never throw another pitch in a Major League game.

Richard went through terrible times, including living on the streets of Houston under a bridge near the Astrodome.  Luckily the story has a happy ending.  Richard has found a way to love his life away from baseball and is happily married.  He often goes to games and hopes that the Astros will someday retire his number in honor of the years of service.

J.R. Richard won a total of 107 games over 10 seasons (although only 5 of those could really be considered full seasons).  Richard never pitched for a Major League team other than the Astros.  Where does Richard rank on the Astros All Time wins leaders?

Answer to Last Week's Question:
Although he had the great numbers in the 1975 World Sereis, Pete Rose was not voted MVP of the series.  That honor went to Joe Morgan, who always seemed to come up with the most important hit, such as the series winner in Game 7.

1 comment:

  1. How scary about having all those symptoms and not knowing what it was. Imagine if he hadn't passed out and pushed through? Maybe he would've helped the Astros win, but he wouldn't have been around to write that autobiography afterward. Glad he turned things around and got better outside of baseball life.


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