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Valenzuela excels despite Dodger blues; watch for Reds in '87

Probably no major league pitcher has more ``ironies'' in the fire this season than left-hander Fernando Valenzuela of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Valenzuela, who is a candidate to win his second National League Cy Young Award, is pitching for a losing team that is about to set a record for most errors in a single season. It has become customary for Dodger hitters to take long siestas whenever Fernando is throwing his screwball.

During a period in baseball when nobody expects pitchers to go much beyond the sixth or seventh inning, Valenzuela had a best-in-the-majors 17 complete games entering Monday's contest against Houston. He even helps his own cause by fielding his position well and throwing to the right bases. For despite resembling the Pillsbury doughboy, with legs too small for his body, he springs from the mound like a cat to scoop up bunted balls.

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Mike Scioscia, who catches most of his games and cannot tell a lie, says that Valenzuela actually had a little better stuff last season. ``That's only because Scioscia doesn't have to hit against him,'' explained Philadelphia manager John Felske, whose Phillies lay goose eggs about every time they encounter Fernando.

Valenzuela has exploded one of baseball's oldest clich'es -- that pitchers can't hit. Five times this year manager Tommy Lasorda has used Fernando to pinch-hit when he still had some of his veterans sitting on the bench.

Since Valenzuela is averaging .400 in that role and has 20 hits overall, Lasorda hasn't been second-guessed when it comes to using Fernando at the plate.

As a pitcher, the key to his effectiveness may be in deception. Everything he throws starts out looking the same to the hitter. Identifying one of his deliveries can be a futile as identifying cars at night by the glow of their headlights.

Hitters who guess screwball (and Valenzuela has two) are just as apt to wind up swinging at one of a pair of a fastballs, a curve, or a change-up.

If Fernando has a trademark, it's the way he rolls his eyes to the heavens on every pitch, a mannerism photographers can't seem to resist.

While most fans automatically assume this explains why so many of Valenzuela's pitches are either in the dirt or only inches above it (he's thrown 12 wild pitches this season), Scioscia has a different explanation.

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``Even though it may not seem like it from the stands, Fernando always sneaks in that little look at the plate just before he throws,'' Mike said. ``The problem isn't his control but his scroogie [screwball].

``Valenzuela likes to throw it low and away to right-handed hitters, and if it breaks too much it's going to be in the dirt. Usually a catcher can block a ball like that and keep it in front of him with his body, but there is so much stuff on Fernando's scroogie that no catcher can react fast enough when the ball is in the dirt to compensate for its spin.''

One thing Lasorda still remembers about Valenzuela's 1981 rookie year was the time his teammates took him to a stylist for a $17 haircut. ``Afterwards,'' Tommy said, ``he told me that's what he used to pay for a suit!'' Elsewhere in the major leagues

Here is what one veteran National League coach, who wishes to remain nameless, told me to look for in 1987. ``Watch the Cincinnati Reds,'' he said. ``With the kids the Reds have in their system, they'll be better than Houston and also Los Angeles, unless the Dodgers make a major deal that includes a top left-handed relief pitcher.'' In particular, he believes outfielder Eric Davis bears watching. Davis, who had 26 home runs and 73 stolen bases through 149 games this season, has the potential to be a future NL batting champion and MVP. This coach also thinks that Barry Larkin could be the Reds' starting shortstop for the next 10 years.

Checking the rumor department for messages . . . former Cub shortstop Larry Bowa may pop up next year as the new manager of the San Diego Padres. Bob Lillis, a coach with the Giants, is thought to be the leading candidate to take over the Minnesota Twins, and Jim Frey, ex-manager of the Chicago Cubs, may be headed for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Twelve years ago, when I moved to California from Boston, I would occasionally take a neighbor's boy to Dodger and Angel games. Already a fine young player, with a shock of unruly red hair, he never seemed to need any encouragement for the future. Only a couple of weeks ago, he made his own arrival in the majors. Called up to play third base by the Oakland A's, Mark McGwire, a former US Olympic team first baseman, collected his first two major league hits off Yankee left-hander Tommy John. McGwire's father just happens to be Tommy's dentist.

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