Lack of strong arms suspected in demise of the complete game

April 28, 1991|By John Lowe | John Lowe,Knight-Ridder News Service

DETROIT -- It was a stunning moment.

The Cincinnati Reds were two outs away from sweeping the 1990 World Series. Jose Rijo, guarding a 2-1 lead, had not allowed a runner since the second inning. When he struck out Oakland's Dave Henderson to start the ninth, he had retired 20 straight batters.

Rijo was about to do what Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Lolich and Orel Hershiser had done -- pitch a dominant complete game to clinch the World Series.

Then Reds manager Lou Piniella walked toward the mound. Randy Myers was warming up in the bullpen.

This looked like a pitching change.

But Piniella wouldn't -- not the way Rijo was pitching, not with two outs to go. Rijo had retired 20 straight.

Piniella didn't know Rijo had retired 20 straight, but he knew that his pitcher was making Oakland helpless.

He reached the mound and asked Rijo how he felt. Rijo told Piniella to do what he thought best.

"I know damn well," Piniella said, "that if Randy Myers would have given up a run or two, and we lost the ballgame, it would have been one of the most stupid moves in World Series annals."

Nonetheless, he called for Myers, "the closer," who closed it by getting the next two hitters.

Rijo's removal may not have been surprising; the 1990 Reds had baseball's best bullpen.

But in baseball history, the moment was defining. Piniella's move showed, as never before, that the bullpen can be the choice to finish any game.

Rijo's removal highlighted something else: Starting pitchers don't throw as hard or as long as they used to.

Until about 1970, most teams used a four-man starting rotation. Pitchers often went eight or nine innings. About 1970, teams started changing from four- to five-man rotations. The theory was that this would keep pitchers stronger and give them more rest.

The opposite has happened. Despite all the improvements in conditioning and diet awareness in the last 20 years, starting pitchers typically go six or seven innings, instead of eight or nine -- despite having another day of rest between starts. And there are not nearly as many throwing 90 mph as there were 20 or 30 years ago.

Part of this results from the emphasis on using more than one reliever per game. But is the bullpen the only reason? Is it possible that today's starting pitchers -- from childhood on -- don't throw enough to stay at full strength? Are relievers required earlier in games primarily because the starters aren't as strong as they should be?

Despite the coming of modern relief pitching in the mid-20th century, the workhorse starter still was expected to go nine innings. No manager would have lifted Gibson, Koufax, Drysdale or Lolich when they were two outs from winning the World Series. And Hershiser, with his two complete-game wins in the 1988 World Series, showed that the breed still existed.

But Hershiser is the recent exception. The Myers-for-Rijo switch completed a transition. In the last 20 years, the complete-game pitcher has virtually disappeared; the ideal staff is built around the bullpen.

"The game has really changed in that respect in the last 20 years," Piniella said. "You look at the teams that have won in recent years, and they all have a closer and a pretty good complement of pitchers in the bullpen."

The Reds have one of the few modern staffs on which several pitchers can summon the coveted 90-mph fastball. Hard throwers have become such a minority that reliever Rob Dibble, the hardest-throwing Red, said after the World Series, "Without a doubt, they [the Athletics] looked like a team not used to facing a staff that throws as hard as ours."

Amid the many explanations for the decrease in hard throwers, a primary one emerges: From ages 8 to 18, boys don't throw enough and thus don't fully develop their arms.

According to many in professional ball, a boy who wants to be a major-league pitcher should throw, throw, throw. And the pitcher is still the key job in baseball. For, although much has changed about pitching in the last 20 years, the importance of pitching has not.

Defense wins in all team sports. This is especially true in baseball, because the defense has the ball. The game is in the hands of the pitcher.

From the time Babe Ruth began pounding homers for the Yankees, hitting has been the game's glamour department. But the 1990 Detroit Tigers were a classic example of how pitching is significantly more important than hitting.

Led by the destructive Cecil Fielder, the Tigers scored more runs than any other American League team except Toronto and led the majors in homers. Yet the Tigers had a losing record all season and were never a serious contender because they led the majors in earned runs allowed per game.

Contrast these Tigers with the 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers. They were among the majors' lowest-scoring teams and had little power. Yet they won the World Series, thanks to their pitching staff, led by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale -- future Hall of Famers at their peaks.

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