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He's not the Fernando Valenzuela of old, not even close. But the newest lefthander in the Angels' rotation showed last Friday that he can still attract fans and, more important, that he still may have something to contribute in a pennant race.
Valenzuela's American League debut was rocky—he gave up nine hits and four earned runs in five innings of a 5-0 loss to the Tigers—but his fastball was clocked as high as 86 mph, his assortment of junk was baffling, he didn't walk anyone, and he struck out five. He also surprised Tiger manager Sparky Anderson. "Everyone was making it sound like he couldn't throw at all," said Anderson after the game. "But he can. Fernando has never been known as a Clemens, you know."
California isn't asking Valenzuela to be Roger Clemens, or even the Valenzuela of his prime, and that's why signing him (for a $300,000 base salary and a chance to earn as much as $1 million with incentives) made sense. He's the fifth starter on a staff whose first four starters have been as good as any in the league this year. "If he makes 20 starts, averages five innings a start, keeps us in games, that's all we need," says Angel manager Doug Rader.
How many fifth starters have been through six pennant races, as Valenzuela has? And who would California fans rather have in a key game in September, Valenzuela or rookie Scott Lewis, the former fifth starter, whose 1-5 record got him sent back to the minors last week?
California certainly should be involved in the pennant race. Through Sunday the Angels were 32-23 and 1½ games behind the first-place Athletics in the American League West. "I really like the Angels," says Anderson. "I like their defense. They have power. What they need to go all the way is the one reliever who can consistently get them to [closer Bryan] Harvey."
In light of all the injuries the A's have suffered, it's remarkable that they have played as well as they have. Oakland sustained what may turn out to be its most devastating injury when shortstop Walt Weiss went down last Thursday with torn ligaments in his left ankle. He will probably be out the rest of the year, so the Angels now have an even better chance to pass the Athletics.
California is especially strong in the one commodity most teams lack: lefthanded starting pitchers. Besides Chuck Finley (10-2 at week's end) and Mark Langston (7-2), the Angels have a revived Jim Abbott, who is back to thinking like a power pitcher. After an 0-4 start, Abbott had won five of six decisions through Sunday. Righthander Kirk McCaskill (6-5) is healthy again, and at week's end he had won four starts in a row. "Our starting pitching matches Oakland's," says California's designated hitter Dave Parker. "Maybe we even have an edge. The A's have three good starters. We have four."
The Angels hope the 30-year-old Valenzuela will make five. After going 13-13 with a 4.59 ERA and throwing a no-hitter for the Dodgers last year, Valenzuela was released on March 28 because Los Angeles thought its other starters were better. For almost two months, Valenzuela received no offers. "My reports say he's got nothing," said Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine when he was asked about Valenzuela in May.
California signed Valenzuela on May 20. He made three starts in the minor leagues without allowing an earned run in 17 innings. His debut appearance as an Angel drew 49,977 fans to Anaheim Stadium. The California front office estimates that 25,000 of those tickets were sold because Valenzuela was pitching, so even if they were all $3 general admission tickets, he made a nice down payment on his salary. The Angels made two errors behind him, but he's used to that: Last year the Dodgers committed 27 errors while he was on the mound. That tied L.A. with the Cubs, who made 27 errors behind Greg Maddux, for the worst defensive support of a pitcher in the league. California figures to help Valenzuela defensively more than the Dodgers did. And he figures to help the Angels with his experience and his savvy.