Monday, August 26, 2013

The Dodgers' Dr. Zero


Jim Murray

They Won't Call Him Dr. Zero for Nothing

    Norman Rockwell would have loved Orel Hershiser. The prevailing opinion is, he wasn't drafted, he just came walking off a Saturday Evening Post cover one day with a pitcher's glove, a cap two sizes too big and a big balloon of bubble gum coming out of his mouth.
    You figure his name has to be Ichabod. I wouldn't say he's skinny but when he turns sideways, he disappears. If it weren't for his Adam's apple, he wouldn't cast a shadow.
    He's paler than Greta Garbo. He's so white you can read through him. If you held him up to the light you could see his heart.
    He says things like, "Golly gee!" and, "Oh, my goodness!" If he gets really upset, you might figure he would go to, "Oh, fudge!"
    He can't really see without glasses and when he puts them on, people either think he's a sportswriter or a guy doing his thesis on major league baseball as a metaphor for the society we live in.
    It should come as no surprise to anyone that he has a Roman numeral after his name. He is descended from the Hessian troops George Washington crossed the Delaware to defeat at Trenton. He is about as far from the public perception of a major league pitcher as it is possible to get. If you wanted to picture a big league pitcher, a guy like Burleigh Grimes would come to mind.
    Some guys pitch out of a sidearm motion, others from a crouch, Grimes pitched out of a scowl. He had this big chaw of tobacco and a blue-black beard that could sand furniture, and the batter had two strikes on him stepping in.
    Or you might prefer Big D, Don Drysdale. He pitched out of a towering rage.
    Every batter was Hitler to Drysdale, or a guy who'd stolen his girlfriend. He threw the ball as if it were a grenade, or he hoped that it were. Big D didn't much care whether he knocked the bat off you or you off the bat. He hit 154 batsmen in his time — 155 if you count Dick Dietz in the ninth inning of a spring game in 1968.
    If anyone told you Orel Hershiser is on the verge of breaking one of the most unassailable pitching records in the books, Don Drysdale's 58 scoreless innings, that this scholarly-appearing right-hander is almost certain to win this year's Cy Young Award, you might be pardoned for asking, "With what?"
    Orel Leonard Hershiser IV does not intimidate the batter, although his nine hit batsmen last year indicate it's not entirely a good idea to lean over the plate looking to get at the curve ball when he's on the mound.
    Hershiser throws ground balls. This is not to say his curve bounces but that his "out" pitch is a roller to shortstop. He throws a sinker, or what we kids in the old neighborhood used to call the  drop. This is a pitch you hit on the top and it does exactly what a golf ball hit on the top does — it rolls along the ground till it hits something, usually an infielder's glove.
    Hershiser also throws a heavy ball — as did Drysdale. That's a ball that comes up to the plate like a 16-pound shot. It can break your bat — and your wrist along with it — if you meet it squarely. Which you seldom do.
    These are Hershiser's stock-in-trade pitches and he can put them pretty much where he wants them, but he cut such a less-than-commanding figure when he first came into the game that the brain trusters thought he was a relief pitcher. He pitched in 49 games one year and worked only 109 innings. He started only four games. But he finished one.
    One year, he pitched in 49 games, started only 10 but finished six. Somehow the message began to seep through that this guy had better than two-inning stuff and, when he came up to the Dodgers, he appeared in 45 games, started 20 and finished eight. Eight complete games is star billing in today's baseball, particularly for someone who spent more than half the season in the bullpen.
    It's not that Orel Hershiser is your basic ragpicker or junk dealer. His fastball is a 90-m.p.h. horror that struck out 190 last year. Still no one calls him Dr. K or the Big Train. They might begin calling him Mister O, or Dr. Zero if he puts up nine more innings of shutout ball. Dr. Zero has put up 49 in a row so far. Only two pitchers have logged more — Drysdale, 58, and Walter Johnson, 55.
    The record was once widely believed as unattainable as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.
    Five shutouts in a season is Cy Young stuff. Five shutouts in a row is Hall of Fame stuff. Drysdale holds the record with six in a row in the National League, and you have to go all the way back to 1904 to find a pitcher with five in a row in the American League. (Walter Johnson set his scoreless-inning record with a lot of relief appearances.)
    Drysdale's scoreless-inning progression was saved at Inning 45 in 1968 when, with the bases loaded, he apparently hit batter Dick Dietz. Umpire Harry Wendelstedt ruled that Dietz stepped into the pitch. Drysdale's argument was even stronger, "How can you hit a guy with a strike?" he
wanted to know.
    Hershiser's saver was an interference call on a base-running assault that broke up a double play and apparently let a run score. Umpire Paul Runge ruled that the base runner neglected base running and would have gotten 15 yards in football for what he did to the pivot man in the double play. Runge called the runner out, which disallowed the run.
    It's important to remember that Drysdale had to get three outs with the bases loaded after his incident in 1968. And Hershiser still had to get the next nine outs in 1988.
    Dr. Zero needs a 10-inning shutout to pass Drysdale. If he gets it, he may celebrate with a hot chocolate.
    If he misses it, he'll say, "Oh, heck!"

Printed with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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