Thursday, March 20, 2008

By Victor Varadi, Contributor

Nolan Ryan started his career with the Mets and was mostly a relief pitcher and spot starter, never quite able to crack the Mets' outstanding rotation for good during his four seasons in Queens. Ryan was a young flame-thrower, but he had control issues and it appeared that he would languish in the Mets bullpen despite flashes of brilliance in the 1969 postseason.

At the conclusion of the 1971 season, Ryan, who never felt comfortable in New York, expressed a desire to be traded. The Mets needed a third baseman and felt Angels veteran shortstop Jim Fregosi could make the switch. They offered Ryan, along with catcher Frank Estrada, pitcher Don Rose and outfielder Leroy Stanton. The Angels wisely accepted. Some would argue it was the best trade the Angels franchise ever made.

By the time the 1974 campaign rolled around, Ryan was on his way to becoming one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball history. The season prior, Ryan threw two no-hitters, fanning 12 and 17, respectively. And while critics point to his paltry winning percentage as a reason why he should not be cast in the same breath as Sandy Koufax and his ilk, Ryan was dominating hitters while mired on bad teams.

On June 14, 1974, Ryan fanned 19 Red Sox in 13 innings (also walking 10 and earning no decision for his effort.) On Aug. 20, he did it again, striking out 19 Tigers, this time through 11 innings of a four-hitter he’d go on to lose, 1-0.

But it was two starts prior to that one that Ryan produced one of the most dominating performances, not only of his career, but in American League history.

On Aug. 12, five weeks before he would stifle the Minnesota Twins for his third no-hitter, Ryan struck out 19 Red Sox in a nine-inning game (walking only two), breaking an American League record held for 36 years by Bob Feller, who fanned 18 Detroit Tigers on Oct. 2, 1938. And this time, the Angels would actually make Ryan a 4-2 winner.

Ryan would strike out the side three times and fanned five of the final six batters he faced, a fly ball to right field by Rick Burleson to end the game preventing Ryan from breaking the Major League record he then shared with former Mets teammate Tom Seaver (April 22, 1970, vs. San Diego) and lefty Steve Carlton (Sept. 15, 1969, vs. New York).

Three players have since struck out 20 batters in a nine-inning game*: Seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens (twice), Kerry Wood and five-time Cy Young winner Randy Johnson.

(* Johnson’s 20 strikeouts came in the first nine innings of a game that would eventually be won by the Diamondbacks in 11. MLB has recognized Johnson’s effort as equaling the record.)

Despite his numerous feats of dominance, Ryan was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999 having never been awarded a Cy Young. But then maybe some day baseball will recognize Ryan by naming a strikeout award after him.
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