Sunday, March 16, 2014


Fernando Valenzuela became a household word in 1981 by beginning that strike-shadowed season with eight straight wins. His portly frame and his off-beat "out" pitch (the screwball) made him a sensation in Los Angeles.

But what's often forgotten is that "Fernandomania" has an interesting pre-history. Valenzuela's 8-0 run in the early part of 1981 was not his first encounter with the major league limelight. During the last weeks of the 1980 pennant race, when the Dodgers were struggling to stay within striking distance of the Houston Astros (remember, no "wild card" in those primordial days...), they turned to a 19-year-old lefthander who had been called up from their San Antonio farm club.

That teenager, of course, was Fernando--but he didn't begin his Dodger career in the starting rotation. He started in the bullpen (if that phrase makes any sense), where his first three appearances were mop-up roles in games that the Dodgers lost. In his first appearance, on September 15, 1980, vs. the Atlanta Braves, Valenzuela gave up two unearned runs in the seventh inning due to errors committed by Derrel Thomas and Ron Cey.

From that point on, over the next 15 2/3 innings, Fernando would not be scored upon. In his fourth game out of the pen, Valenzuela began to appear in situations where the game was on the line. On September 27th, when the Dodgers' two erratic closers (Steve Howe and Don Stanhouse) both floundered operatically, threatening to blow a five-run lead against the lowly San Diego Padres, Fernando was brought in to stem the tide. After walking Barry Evans to load the bases, Valenzuela induced a force-out grounder from Paul Dade to quash the Padres' rally, then worked his way through the top of San Diego batting order in the ninth to record his first-ever save.

Three days later, the Dodgers were in desperate need of a victory against the Giants in San Francisco. (They were two games behind the Astros, and had to win in order to not lose any more ground.) RBI singles from Pedro Guerrero and Steve Garvey got the game tied, 3-3, and Tommy Lasorda brought in Fernando instead of the struggling Howe.

After getting the first out, "Freddy" (as some of us were already calling him at the time) walked Will Clark and Max (not Will) Venable, putting the winning run in scoring position. He then proceed to fan the next two batters, sending the game into extra innings. In the top of the tenth, Guerrero (just beginning to emerge as a hitting star in the midst of an aging Dodger starting lineup) slammed a three-run homer to give LA a 6-3 lead. Valenzuela struck out two more in the bottom of the tenth and was credited with his first big-league win.

Fernandomania would eventually get so crazy
in early 1981 that even Johnny Carson would
get into the act...
Three days later (October 3) the Dodgers came home needing to sweep their season-ending series with the Astros to force a playoff. Trailing 2-1 in the top of the ninth, Lasorda again gave the ball to Fernando, who allowed two two-out singles (Enos Cabell and Terry Puhl) but stranded them. In the bottom of the ninth, Cey singled in the tying run, forcing extra innings.

Fernando fanned two in the top of the tenth, and Joe Ferguson greeting Astros' starter Ken Forsch (who, today, would never be in the game at such a point) with a leadoff homer to give the Dodgers a 3-2 victory--and Valenzuela's second relief win.

The Dodgers would force the playoff game by winning the next two games, with Valenzuela making another scoreless two-inning appearance in the season-tying contest on October 5. He'd also appear in the anti-climactic one-game playoff the next day, where fizzling free agent starter Dave Goltz got polished off by the Astros as they cruised to a 7-1 win.

By the end of the 1980 campaign, Valenzuela had thrown 15 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings and had an ERA of zero (that's 0.00). He'd set the stage for what would become a nationwide sensation in the early months of 1981.