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His hero wins pain is almost pleasure


For a moment, just a moment, the losing pitcher was a fan again, a kid looking for autographs, an innocent amazed that anyone in this world had the privilege of speaking to his favorite ballplayer.

"Have you ever met Fernando?" asked the Twins' Eddie Guardado. "Have you ever talked to him?"

The visitors' clubhouse at Camden Yards was quiet after the Orioles' 7-2 win, in which Fernando Valenzuela pitched a complete game, yes, another pearl, and Guardado got chased in the seventh inning.

"Is he, like, a good guy?" asked Guardado, all of 22. "You know, a nice guy?"

Yes, came the answer. Very pleasant. Very nice. A gentleman.

Guardado smiled. Yes, his face said. Knew it all along. A gentleman.

"I wanted to meet him after the game," Guardado said. "I told my dad I was going to get an autograph. But they won and I couldn't go on the field."

When Guardado, 22, phoned his dad the other day in Stockton, Calif., with the news that he would pitch against Fernando, his father almost dropped the phone. His father, like Fernando, was born and raised in Mexico. A total Fernandomaniac.

"When Fernando was with the Dodgers we always watched on TV," Guardado said. "My father would go crazy. Mexico has had a lot of position players in the majors, but not many pitchers. It was very exciting for all the people from Mexico. Fernando was my favorite player by a mile."

Guardado started playing ball himself, grew up and made the majors this year, and, well, it's quite a thing. He is also a pitcher, also left-handed, also short and roundish, and also tricky more than fast.

"Me and Fernando," he said, smiling, "have a few things in common."

Like most of Fernando's fans, he thought the left-hander's career was over in 1991, when a comeback with the Angels didn't work out. And, like all of Fernando's fans, he is amazed at the text of Fernando's comeback with the Orioles.

"I thought I would never see him again," Guardado said. "But I've been watching him in the box scores, and it's exciting. Kind of like it used to be. I pull for him. Every day but today."

Fernando was making the 339th start of his career yesterday before another full house on a clear-blue afternoon. For Guardado, a low-round draft pick three years ago, it was the seventh career start.

"After we finished warming up [in the bullpens] I sat down for a minute and just shook my head," Guardado said. "It was like, 'I can't believe this is happening.' "

Palpably nervous, Guardado gave up two runs in the first inning. But Fernando gave up two in the second, breaking his scoreless streak after 24 2/3 innings. Neither bent again until the fifth.

But then Mike Devereaux planted a two-out, two-run triple off the center-field wall in the fifth, and Guardado was pulled after walking Brady Anderson to lead off the seventh.

Fernando, meanwhile, gave up only two hits after the second inning, the Twins biting on his screwball and cut fastball as though it were 1981 all over again. The win pushed his record to 5-7, but the figure is misleading. He has given up three or fewer runs in 13 of 18 starts, and clearly is pitching better as the season progresses.

"The more he pitches, whether real or imagined, I see more arm speed, more arm strength, more deception on his screwball and a better cut fastball," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said.

Said the Twins' Shane Mack: "He's throwing all kinds of different pitches up there. He's got the screwball going. The slider working. A changeup. Several 'Eat This' pitches."

Guardado sat in front of his locker, munching on a plate of chicken wings and shaking his head.

"You can't say that he is going to be the same as he was with the Dodgers," Guardado said, "but he sure was today. That was something else."

He said he would call his dad later and go over the memorable day.

"My dad said I had to get a ball autographed," he said, "for the mantel. I'll have to tell him I didn't. But the Orioles are coming [to Minnesota] next weekend. I'll get him then, for sure. I won't wait until after the game."

Around him, the other Twins dressed quickly, a flight to catch. Guardado grabbed his shirt. Someone mentioned that, if both rotations held, he would pitch against Fernando again Friday night.

The young pitcher froze, letting this sink in. A smile grew.

"Oh, man," he said, "that would be great."

But then he thought of the day's game, the loss, his red-hot hero sticking it to him.

"Ah, but maybe it wouldn't really be so great, huh?" he said.

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