Fernando Valenzuela refuses to go gently into baseball night


PHILADELPHIA -- By all rights, this should be strictly about Fernando Valenzuela, the brilliant left-hander the Los Angeles Dodgers reluctantly released three years and four months ago.

Pitching against his old team for the second time in two weeks, Valenzuela was positively brilliant yesterday at the Vet. He mixed in his rediscovered screwball with a variety of other pitches and had the Dodgers blanked on four singles going into the ninth.

"He made it look easy," Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda said.

So easy that he needed only 87 pitches to get through the first eight innings.

So easy that starting with Rafael Bournigal's third-out pop fly that ended the Dodgers' second inning, through Dave Hansen's pinch-hit grounder that ended the eighth, he retired 19 of 20 Dodgers batters.

So easy that going into the ninth he had retired 13 in a row with only two balls leaving the infield.

"It's not like he throws the way he did, but the guy can still pitch," Dodgers leadoff man Brett Butler said of the left-hander, who was 8-10 with a 4.94 ERA with the Orioles last season. "He adds a little on, takes a little off. He knows what he's doing. The hitters, they go out there, try to do too much. That's where he gets you."

And, brother, did he ever get them. Ten ground balls in those eight innings. Only one Dodger making it to second base. You can't pitch much better than Valenzuela pitched yesterday. Nor can you feel much safer than the Phillies did as they took the field in the top of the ninth with a 9-0 lead.

Yes, for the better part of three hours this was the Fernando Valenzuela story, with a passing tip of the hat to the suddenly revived Phillies offense. Who would have thought that seven hits, two walks and three Phillies pitchers later, Valenzuela would be sitting in the clubhouse, icing his arm and watching that &L; seemingly insurmountable lead turn eminently surmountable?

For those sitting in the Phillies' dugout while seven Dodgers runs poured over the plate, it raised visions of that awful night in Atlanta -- May 19 to be exact -- when the Braves scored seven runs on eight hits in the ninth to overcome an 8-1 deficit on the way to a 9-8, 14-inning victory.

For those on the other side of the field, it brought back memories of an August night at Dodger Stadium in 1990 -- Black Tuesday to Dodgers fans -- when the Phillies, trailing 11-3 after eight, scored eight runs in the ninth, the last three on a pinch-hit homer by John Kruk, and one in the 10th to win, 12-11.

"I thought about that," said Lasorda. "We used our whole bullpen to [try to] stop them, just like he [Phillies manager Jim Fregosi] was trying to do today."

Roger McDowell, who gave up the last Phillies' run in the bottom of the eighth, thought of it, too. The former Phillie was the winning pitcher in that 12-11 shocker.

"We were laughing when [yesterday's game] got close," said Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza. "It was just amazing. It would have been poetic justice for us to tie that game."

The Phillies weren't laughing. Their fans, who gave Valenzuela a rousing, standing ovation when he left after giving up two homers and three ninth-inning runs, weren't laughing.

"Amazing, isn't it?" Lasorda said. "Don't get any runs for eight, then turn around and score seven with the winning run at the dish."

By the time Phillies bullpen ace Doug Jones got the call, the score was 9-5, the bases were loaded with two out, and Rookie of the Year candidate Raul Mondesi was at bat.

The count went to 1-2, Mondesi swinging over a changeup for the second strike.

The fans stood and clapped and unleashed an expectant roar. Whoops! Mondesi lined a long single to center. Now the lead was down to two, the tying runs were aboard, and backup catcher Carlos Hernandez, whose two-run homer chased Valenzuela earlier in the inning, was coming up.

This time, the count went to 0-2. Again the people stood. Again they clapped. Again they roared, although not quite as confidently this time. Hernandez swung and smacked a sharp one-hopper to Mickey Morandini at second -- and Valenzuela's first National League victory in four years was finally secure.

"Hernandez hit the heck out of that ball," Lasorda said.

A couple of feet either way and -- hey, let's not even think about that. This was Valenzuela's day, remember? If ever a man deserved to get his first victory as a Phillie, it was Valenzuela. To watch him these days is to attend a clinic on pitching, proof that you don't have to excite the scouts with the radar guns behind home plate to baffle big-league hitters for six, seven, eight innings.

"A lot of hitters, they still think, 'Well, he's a screwball pitcher,' " Valenzuela said. "That's the reason I try to change a little bit."

Last time he faced the Dodgers, he surprised them by frequently coming inside to their right-handed batters with a cut fastball.

Yesterday, he used a little bit of everything, including his trademark screwball.

"A straight fastball, too," he said, "and I use the curveball. I use it a lot. And I try to use both sides of the plate."

He pitches with his head now, as well as his arm. Four times he's started for the Phillies, four times he's pitched well enough to win. The first three times, the Phillies backed him with a total of four runs in 2-1, 3-1 and 3-2 defeats. With runs pouring over the plate yesterday, Valenzuela must have thought that Christmas had come early, until the ninth inning took on the look of April Fools' Day.

"Nine runs, we have to win," he said, smiling.

They didn't "have" to, of course. Not in this crazy sport, where nothing is ever certain, no lead is ever totally safe. Not even yesterday's.

All's well that ends well, though. After the job Fernando Valenzuela did, it would have been a crime for his first National League victory in four years to get wiped out by the Dodgers' scoring nine runs, or more, in the top of the ninth.

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