On July 20 in St. Louis, Rollie Fingers lost his fourth game in a row. That defeat gave San Diego's star relief pitcher a 4-11 record, and though he had 20 saves, Fingers began to suspect that something was terribly wrong. In three appearances that week, Fingers had faced 16 batters in only 2? innings, giving up five runs on eight hits. But of even greater concern, to both him and the Padres, was his collapsing confidence. "The reason I bring Fingers into a game is my lack of confidence in my other pitcher," says Padre Manager Roger Craig. With their ace short reliever coming up short, the Padres, then in fourth place at 46-50, seemed headed toward their 10th losing season in their 10 years of existence.
That night the team returned to San Diego for what became a most auspicious homecoming. The next day Fingers happened to glance at some photographs on the wall of the trophy room in his home, pictures taken while he was pitching for the A's. He noticed that his pitching hand was breaking out of his glove—coming into view—differently then. Fingers peered closely at the photographs. In his Oakland days, his glove was at his waist at the moment he broke his hands apart. This season, he suddenly realized, his glove was higher, up around his chest. By Fingers' estimate, the change in his delivery had decreased the velocity of his fastball from 95 mph to 85—or just enough for hitters to have time to lean on it.
"It was a habit I must have started in spring training," says Fingers, "but no one had noticed the change."
Fingers has been the premier reliever of the '70s, and one of the big reasons is anatomical. He is 6'4" and 190 pounds and his long, stringy arm muscles, when fully extended, produce a befuddling array of fastballs, curves and sliders. By parting his hands too high, Fingers says, not only was he greatly reducing the extension of his right arm, but he also was unable to get the full force of his body into his pitches.
For a couple of days, Fingers threw in the bullpen, reworking his windup, and on July 23 he pitched 1? innings. Though the Padres lost the game, Fingers did not yield a run.
That was the start of a scoreless streak that lasted more than a month. In 14 appearances, Fingers gave up only nine hits and struck out 18 in 20? innings. During this span, the Padres had a club-record 10-game winning streak, and Fingers had six saves. The last four were vintage performances: July 30, two perfect innings; July 31, 1? scoreless innings; Aug. 2, two shutout innings; Aug. 4, 1? perfect innings.
Clearly, Fingers had returned to form, and no one was happier than 39-year-old Gaylord Perry, whom San Diego got from Texas in an off-season trade. Although he has pitched only three complete games, Perry has won 15 of 21 decisions. Eight of his victories have been saved by Fingers. "Never in my 16 seasons have I had the good fortune of having a pitcher like Fingers in my bullpen," says Perry. For his part, Fingers says never has he had anyone like the Padres' 23-year-old shortstop, Ozzie Smith, helping him in the field. "One of the keys to my success over the years has been my shortstop." says Fingers, whose low pitches result in lots of ground balls that in Oakland were gobbled up by Bert Campaneris. "And Smith makes plays that Campy could never have made." That's saying something, for a young man with only 68 minor league games behind him when he joined the Padres in March, but then National Leaguers have been raving about Smith's glove work ever since. To hear them tell it, Smith is Honus Wagner incarnate. He also is a superb base stealer—he had 32 at the end of last week—and a .260 hitter.
Defensive support is only one reason for Fingers' success this year and in the past. While most relievers sandwich a bad season or two between their good ones. Fingers has never had a year-long slump. Since becoming a full-time reliever in 1972, he has never had fewer than 18 saves, and that was in 1974—the year he was World Series MVP. His high of 35 came last season, when he was named National League Fireman of the Year. This consistency, as much as Fingers' accomplishments with the A's, was the reason the Padres risked $1.6 million to sign him as a free agent before last season.
Fingers has been able to maintain his strength and sharpness while averaging 64 appearances a season because he is a student of the art of relief pitching. "I learned how to preserve my arm by watching Mudcat Grant in Oakland," he says. "If the pitcher in the game gets out of a jam while I'm warming up, I sit down. If he gets in trouble again, I only soft-toss the ball in the bullpen, knowing that I have eight pitches waiting for me on the mound. A lot of relievers burn themselves out in the bullpen."
With Fingers back in the groove, the Padres, who were 70-67 at the end of last week, should finally finish above .500. And along the way, he may throw enough low stuff to help Perry win 20 games for the first time since 1974, and to give Smith enough chances to show off his glove so that he will clinch Rookie of the Year. Fingers might even set a record in the process. With 30 saves as the season's final month began, he could break Clay Carroll's record of 37, set in 1972. Fingers had 31 saves at the same point in 1977, but the Padres lost 17 of their last 27 games and he fell short of-the record. "If we can win 18 of our last 26 games," says Fingers, "I should be able to do it."