Thursday, March 13, 2008

By Geoff Bilau, Senior Editor

Heading into his final start of the 1973 season, Nolan Ryan had already accomplished more than most pitchers these days can claim in two or three seasons.

38 starts. 25 complete games. Four shutouts. 20 victories. 22 games with 10 or more strikeouts. Heck, he even recorded a save, pitching the final two innings a day after the shortest start of his career (0.1 inning) to secure an Angels 6-5 victory on May 12.

And, oh yeah, he also tossed two no-hitters, on May 15 and July 15.

With all of that already under his belt, it seems almost absurd that Ryan saved his best for last. You see, while he was ringing up all of those strikeouts, they were adding up to something potentially very special.

During his first five September starts (all complete game victories), Ryan struck out 53 batters, giving him 367 strikeouts for the year — 15 shy of Sandy Koufax’s Major League record 382 in 1965.

Nursing a torn calf muscle, Ryan took the Anaheim Stadium mound in front of just 9,100 fans looking to make history one more time in 1973. When the Twins immediately jumped out to a 3-0 first inning lead, it didn’t seem likely he’d stick around long enough to collect the requisite strikeouts — though he did fan the side in the inning.

The Angels answered with three in the bottom of the first and Ryan had new life. Through five innings, he had 11 strikeouts and the Angels led, 4-3. In the sixth, the Twins pushed across the tying run, which would prove fortuitous for Ryan later in the night.

In the seventh, he again struck out the side, giving him 14 strikeouts, one shy of tying Koufax. But he’d also walked six batters, allowed seven hits and was piling up a lot of pitches on an aching leg. In the eighth, Ryan struck out Steve Brye to end the inning, tying Koufax with No. 382.

After nine innings, the game remained tied, 4-4, with Ryan stalled at 15 punchouts. And when he pitched a scoreless 10th, sandwiching a fly ball between two groundouts, fans wondered if he had enough left for one more inning.

With reliever Steve Barber warming in the bullpen, the Angels went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning. Announcer Dick Enberg made the call.

"The crowd is standing in anticipation, watching the bullpen gate," Enberg said, pausing in his own anticipation. "And here he comes!"

Ryan jumped ahead of Brye, 1-2, but the center fielder grounded out to short. Ryan’s body language couldn’t disguise his fatigue or his frustration.

"Ryan now is like the heavyweight fighter with a knockout punch that has gone so many rounds that he has his opponent staggering and staggering but doesn't have enough left to deliver that one blow that will knock him to the canvas and put him away," Enberg said. "He's getting the two strikes on hitters, but can't get the third."

Next up was Rod Carew, who struck out only 55 times in 1973, though three of them came earlier in this game. Carew drew a walk, Ryan’s seventh of the game, bringing manager Bobby Winkles to the mound. The crowd bristled, but Enberg was unfazed.

"He is going to let Nolan Ryan pitch as long as he wants,” Enberg said.

During Tony Oliva’s at-bat, Carew broke for second, drawing a throw — and a gasp from the crowd, which did not him to be thrown out, thus robbing Ryan of an opportunity for the 16th strikeout. Carew was safe. Oliva, however, flew out to center field, bringing up light hitting Rich Reese, who’d pinch run for Harmon Killebrew in the ninth.

"You can feel through the crowd a vibration saying, 'Maybe this is the guy,’ “ Enberg said.

Reese swung and missed at Ryan’s first two pitches, another two-strike opportunity for the right-hander. On Ryan’s 0-2 pitch…

"Swung on and missed! Nolan Ryan is the Major League strikeout king of all time! He walks off the mound, his teammates come over to greet him one by one, the fans stand cheering.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have seen one of the finest young men to ever wear a baseball uniform record one of the most incredible records in Major League history. Three hundred and eighty-three for Nolan Ryan!

"Fans are shaking hands with each other as if they're all part of this great night, as if to say, 'Yes, we saw it. We saw it all.’ “

With their ace now the strikeout king, the Angels rewarded Ryan with the victory when pinch hitter Richie Scheinblum doubled home Tommy McCraw with the game-winner in the bottom of the 11th.

Ryan finished 1973 with a 21-16 record, 2.87 ERA and finished second in Cy Young Award voting to Jim Palmer. But it was the last pitch he threw that season that remains his most memorable.
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