Superficially, the crowds in Houston's Astrodome last week had come to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Astros, but what they really wanted to see was the "duel" between baseball's strikeout kings, J.R. Richard and Nolan Ryan, leaders in the National and American Leagues last year, now teammates on the Astros. Richard, 29, has struck out more than 300 batters in each of the last two seasons, averaging 9.78 per nine innings. Ryan, 33, has five 300-strikeout seasons, ranks fourth on the alltime strikeout list and has averaged 9.73 a game for his 12-year career. The prospects were delicious, unless you happened to be a Dodger.
Richard drew the Opening Day—night, really—assignment for the fifth year in a row, which enabled Ryan to pitch the third game Saturday before a national television audience. J.R. went out and produced what he later called "my best game ever," winning 3-2, striking out 13 and coming very close to a perfect game. Over to you, Nolan.
Ryan, appearing just 26 miles from his Alvin, Texas home, said he felt the greatest pressure of his life. His performance was effective, but it paled beside Richard's—or his personal best, for that matter. Even so, he pitched and, astonishingly, hit the Astros to a 5-4 lead in six innings, although he struck out only three. Houston eventually lost 6-5 in a 17-inning, five-hours-plus game that wiped out much of NBC's Saturday night programming.
And what about Game 2? Enter Joe Niekro. While Richard was going 18-13 with the Astros and Ryan 16-14 with the Angels last season, Niekro fluttered his knuckleball to a 21-11 record. Pitching between Richard and Ryan may obscure Niekro's achievements. As San Diego's Dave Winfield said to him at an off-season charity roast, "Everybody was so scared of J.R. last year that you sneaked in the back door and won 21 games. Now, with Ryan, you'll probably win 25 and nobody will know it."
Niekro certainly didn't receive any favors from his teammates last week. They committed three errors that led to five unearned runs during his five-inning stint on Friday night. After Niekro retired, the Astros stormed from behind for a 10-6 victory. Two days later, the fourth Houston starter, Ken Forsch, who pitched a no-hitter last year, beat the Dodgers 4-2 to complete a three-wins-in-four-games beginning for the Astros.
Although Richard and Ryan are lumped generically as "power pitchers," they are different in several important ways. While Ryan's fastball tends to rise, Richard's darts. Ryan's second pitch is a curve, Richard's a slider. Ryan is forever trying to shear off the corners of the plate; Richard goes for the middle and depends on the natural movement of the ball to baffle the batter. Ryan's pitch is easier to follow than Richard's because Ryan's delivery is more overhand and the ball moves less. Finally, Ryan's ball is "lighter," or easier to catch.
What Richard and Ryan have in common is a whole lot of heat. Last week Richard was the faster, whipping the ball in at 98 mph for the first time in his career, and doing so on four separate deliveries. Ryan got up to 97 mph only once, but later in the season he will undoubtedly go higher. Richard's slider, meanwhile, was in the 89-to-91-mph range; Ryan's curve dropped to 80 to 81 mph.
Variations in style and speed weren't all that separated Richard and Ryan last week. Although both felt that strenuous off-season work had put them in the best shape of their careers, only Richard had the confidence to match. J.R., after all, was facing a team that he had defeated 11 straight times, against whom he had a 13-4 career record and a 1.98 ERA. Ryan had also faced the Dodgers before, during his four-year career with the Mets (1968-71), but that was long ago. Those Dodgers had beaten him six of seven times; these Dodgers were largely unfamiliar and had bombed him for nine hits and eight runs during a three-inning spring-training appearance. "There is nothing I dislike more than facing a hitter I don't know," he said before the game. "It's like walking into a dark room and not knowing where the furniture is."
Richard tried to help Ryan by going over the hitters with him on Wednesday while the two did their stretching exercises. "He's country," Richard says with a laugh, "but I like him."
Ryan and Richard have been a disappointment to those who wanted them to show signs of jealousy. Even though some feelings of competition would be natural, even healthy, neither will admit to any. "Competition is the farthest thing from my mind," says Richard. "He's got his money and I've got mine."