Philadelphia Inquirer - July 14, 1980
Despite miseries, Robinson won’t bench fastball
By Chuck Newman, Inquirer Staff Writer
Don Robinson can empathize witn Nino Espinosa. He has been down the same road.
The 23-year-old Pirates pitcher, however, may not exactly agree with the modus operandi of the Phillies' righthander.
Espinosa is pitching with bursitis in his shoulder. Pitching carefully, using the fastball as an exhibit. Trying to survive with location. Living with the innuendo that he is afraid to pop the ball.
Robinson is making a comeback from arm troubles, too. Again. For the second time. And he has had some back problems thrown in during his three Pirates seasons.
But Robinson has never been accused on holding anything back. He did go to sliders and sinkers during recuperation from off-season shoulder surgery earlier this year. But they were hard sliders and sinkers, thrown at the same velocity he tried to throw his fastball and curves.
The sinker and slider are on hold right now Robinson appears to be back from arm miseries, if yesterday's 8-1/3 innings against the Phillies at the Vet is any indication.
He's back, that is, if the slight groin pull that ended his day's work heals in time for him to take his regular turn on Friday.
Robinson allowed the Phils only seven hits in a 7-3 Bucs win – one a home run to Garry Maddox, and a pair of doubles. A triple by Greg Gross that ended in an aborted attempt for an inside-the-park home run should not be held against him because of the method in which outfielder Lee Lacy butchered the play.
"He (Robinson) threw as good as he has since his rookie year," said Pittsburgh manager Chuck Tanner.
Robinson threw in a two-run home run, no windblown fluke, to his effort. And that was no accident either, since he has a major league average of .312 and was hitting .435 this season going into yesterday's game.
Robinson loved the homer but was more enthused with the pitching effort. Off his background, he can't be faulted.
He pitched his way onto the Pirates' roster in 1978 after only 14 minor league decisions in 1977. That was the year he had elbow surgery.
He won 14 games as a National League rookie, losing some starts when bothered with back problems.
He was a .500 pitcher last season, again being haunted by arm problems that resulted in shoulder surgery prior to this season.
Robinson was on the disabled list when this season began. And the road back has been tenuous, mined with some doubt and dubious outings. In his first start, back on May 28, he gave up five runs and nine hits to the Phillies in only four innings.
He stayed that way until about 2½ weeks ago in a game against Montreal. Something popped in Robinson's shoulder, maybe the adhesions from the surgery. "We had been waiting all season for that to happen," Robinson said. "As soon as it did, everything was all right. I haven't had any pain since."
So, the fastball and curve were brought out of storage. On July 4, the 6-foot, 4-inch, 230-pounder went eight strong innings against Chicago. Yesterday, he likely would have gone nine if he didn't pull the groin muscle pitching to Bob Boone with one out in the ninth.
Robinson wanted badly to finish yesterday, even after feeling the groin pull as he pitched to the hitter before Boone, Larry Bowa. Tanner, however, was taking no chances. Kent Tekulve came on to close out the Phillies.
Robinson tap-danced around the question of Espinosa's velocity, as did most of the Pirates. Maybe third-baseman Bill Madlock offered the most definitive statement on the subject "I thought he pitched good," the Bucs' slumping infielder said. "But he looked a little afraid to pop the ball. I thought he looked good, but anybody looks good against me right now the way I'm hitting."
Robinson's approach to arm miseries has not been the same as Espinosa's.
"I am going to throw as hard as I can all the time," he said. "If I can't throw the ball hard, I better find something else to do."
Pirates pounce on Espinosa, crush Phils, 7-3
By Jason Stark, Inquirer Staff Writer
On the Fourth of July, Nino Espinosa fooled all of the Cardinals all of the time. And yesterday, he fooled some of the Pirates some of the time.
But guys who throw the ball 68 m.p.h. aren't going to fool the whole National League even most of the time.
Espinosa may be a heady pitcher. But it. wouldn't hurt if he would trade a hunk of brain power for about 20 more m.p.h. of steam on his fastball.
"Nino just has to get in his mind that he doesn't have a sore arm anymore," said Dallas Green yesterday after Espinosa had thrown three home-run balls and the Phillies had lost to the Pirates, 7-3. "He can get people out, and he doesn't have to protect his arm to do that.
"The finesse was successful in St. Louis. But it's not going to work 100 percent of the time, as he proved today."
Espinosa threw those floaterballs through eight two-hit shutout innings in St. Louis. It was a testament to what a guy can do when he knows as much about where and what to throw as he does about cranking back and firing. And Espinosa, said Green, "pitches as much with his head as anyone we have on our staff."
But yesterday, the floaters were floating into places where people could hit them. And one of the people who did was Pirates pitcher Don Robinson, who whacked his first big-league homer in the second. Another who did was Tim Foli, who hit his third home run in two years. Two of the three are off Espinosa.
"In St. Louis, Nino had pretty good ability to keep guys off stride," Green said. "Today he had some hitters off stride. But they were still able to get their bat on the ball, which they didn't do in St. Louis."
Espinosa breezed through a 1-2-3 first inning yesterday. He even fanned Dave Parker – with a fastball. And back-to-back doubles by Pete Rose and Bake McBride got him a 1-0 lead.
However, he walked John Milner on four pitches to start the second inning. And Mike Easier, he of the .458 average with men on base, ripped a single through the middle. Garry Maddox's throw to third hit Milner on the helmet, ricocheted all the way into the stands on the fly and it was 1-1.
Ed Ott's RBI single made it 2-1. And Robinson crunched an outside slider about 390 feet off the backdrop in left-center. 4-1.
Maybe Robinson had never taken anybody out of the park before, but his lifetime average is .312. He is so good a hitter that Chuck Tanner let him bat against the Phillies earlier this year, even though he was planning to take him out before the next inning.
Robinson can also pitch a little. He had his best searing fastball and the hardest, toughest righthanded slider this side of J. R. Richard. And after his homer, the Phils never got closer than two.
Maddox's sixth homer got them within 4-2 in the fourth. But solo shots by Milner in the sixth and Foli in the seventh finished the dramatic portion of the proceedings.
One thing they also did was enable Green to get that famous former Peninsula Pilot, Warren Brusstar, into the game. It had been a year to the day since Brusstar had last thrown a pitch in Veterans Stadium.
In between he had drifted through doctors' offices in Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, St. Louis and a few points east. He had worked on Cybex machines. He had tried out an obscure rehabilitative technique known as accupressure. He had even broken down physically on a pitcher's mound in Durham, N.C.
"The one point I got discouraged was at the ball game in Durham," Brusstar said. "I just couldn't get loose."
But no, he said, he never even thought about giving up on his two-year battle back from his mysterious shoulder problem.
"I couldn't do that," said Brusstar. "People have been too good around here for me to do that."
The road back ended in the eighth inning yesterday. Greg Gross had pinch-hit for Espinosa in the seventh and only missed an inside-the-park homer because he got to the plate and found Ott blocking it. You'd have a better chance of bowling over the Betsy Ross house.
So the eighth began, and Brusstar found himself riding that motorized Phillies cap in from the bullpen to the mound. What was left of a crowd of 48,152 people was murmuring audibly. But Brusstar said he never heard them.
"No, I was talking to the driver of the cart," Brusstar said. "He said, 'It's good to be back, isn't it?' I said, 'You got that right.'"
He got to the mound, telling himself, "Just try to relax." And he got two outs on two pitches.
But Bill Madlock lined a base hit to center. Then Ott chopped an Astro-turf single, three miles up. When it came down; Mike Schmidt barehanded it, fired wildly and Madlock went to third. Phil Garner then roped a sinker that never sunk to left for an RBI single.
"I came in after that first inning and said to myself – hey, Dick Ruthven even told me – 'You've got to keep the ball down,' " Brusstar said. "I just can't put the ball upstairs like that. It's impossible for me to do it and be effective."
So he went out in the ninth and looked like the Brusstar of 1978. Three hitters, three ground balls.
"I think, after that second inning I threw, I'm ready (for the tough situations again)," he said. "I know what I have to do. It's just a matter of concentration more than anything. Confidence? Yeah, after throwing three ground balls in the ninth, it does a great deal for your confidence."
Green still has worries about Brusstar's ability to get ready in a hurry. He said it took Brusstar 50 warmup pitches to get loose yesterday. (Brusstar said it was more like 30.) And that indicates to Green that "there's doubt in his mind that he would be ready quickly."
Green said Brusstar could probably go in there tomorrow and get him a double-play ball. But he will not put him in those situations for now.
"I'll give him a couple more outings like this," Green said, "just so he knows he can get people out again major league people."
NOTES: As usual, the silence was thunderous in the Phillies locker room. "You guys have got them so ticked off they don't even talk to me anymore," Green told the press. "Of course, that's not all bad."... Friday-Saturday-Sunday attendance totaled 153,615, largest in Vet history.... Rose has five doubles in three games, giving him the league lead with 27.... Pirates outfit of the day: 100 percent gold.... Randy Lerch (3-11) vs. Rick Rhoden (0-1) tonight.
Tekulve, built like a needle, knows how to give one
By Frank Dolson, Sports Editor
Ninth inning, the Phillies batting with two men on base and a tall, slender – OK, skinny – man walked in from the left-field bullpen, boos following him every step of the way.
Then came the announcement: "Now pitching for the Pirates, No. 27, Kent Tekulve," and the boos grew louder. Minutes later he walked toward third base and had a short conversation with Dale Berra. More boos.
It was, quite frankly, a terrible thing for the sports fans of this city to do. If they want to boo Santa Claus, fine. The Easter Bunny, great. Danny Ozark, super. But Kent Tekulve?
Here's a guy who looks like he hasn't eaten a square meal in a month. Seeing him surrounded by Dave Parker, Willie Stargell, Bill Robinson, Don Robinson and the rest of those athletic-looking brutes in the Pirates clubhouse, Kent Tekulve looks like an ad for "Send this boy to camp."
And yet they booed him. What a crushing blow to those of us who maintain that Philadelphia fans really do have a heart.
"I guess it's better to get booed than not get recognized at all," Tekulve said, smiling.
Oh, they recognized him, all right. How could any National League baseball fan not recognize Kent Tekulve? His physique is unique among base ball All-Stars.
He had entered Saturday night's game in the ninth inning... and lost it on a ground ball through a five-man infield. Yesterday the ground balls the Phillies hit went straight at people, and Tekulve wound up with his 11th save. Such is the life of a relief pitcher, especially a relief pitcher who lives and dies by making batters beat the ball into the turf.
"They booed me when I came in, they even booed me when I talked to my third baseman," Tekulve said pleasantly. "After last night I thought they'd be cheering me."
The man, quite obviously, has a sense of humor. If you were as tall and skinny as Kent Tekulve and you played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, you'd have to develop a sense of humor, too.
Try spending a few minutes with Tekulve and Chuck Tanner some time. The wisecracks fly faster than a Dave Parker line drive. The way the insults shoot back and forth, you'd swear they were practicing to be summer replacements for Don Rickles.
There was the buffet breakfast on the morning of the All-Star Game last week in Los Angeles. Tekulve walked over to Tanner's table, carrying a plate of bacon and eggs. Right on cue, and with a perfectly straight face, the Pirates' manager jumped up and offered to carry the plate.
"Can't I at least help you lift it?" Tanner asked when Tekulve waved him off.
So it goes, a seemingly endless parade of one-liners.
Tekulve, fighting the flu, hadn't been feeling well for a week or so before the All-Star Game. Naturally, Tanner had made it a point to inquire as to his welfare on a daily basis. The conversations, Chuck explained to Tekulve, would go something like this:
Tanner: "How's Teke today?"
Trainer: "He looks awful."
Tanner: "Well, it's about time he's back to normal."
Tekulve seems to enjoy playing along with the gag. At a banquet last winter he stood up, opened his jacket to reveal that string bean frame and said, "All I hear is how smart Chuck Tanner is. Would you send this body out on the mound 102 times?"
Don't get the idea that Tekulve is all take and no give. He's pretty good at giving a needle, too, which is only right considering he's built like one.
This spring, Tanner kept telling the press that he believed in taking all the credit for the losses and giving credit to his players for the victories. That philosophy so impressed Tekulve that when the Pirates went into a tailspin, losing nine out of 10, the reliever approached Tanner in the clubhouse and said, "Hey, Skip, you're sure getting a lot of credit lately."
"I'm going to pitch you every day if . you get smart with me," Tanner retorted in mock anger.
"What else is new?" said Tekulve.
It should be apparent by now that Kenton Charles (Teke) Tekulve. all 6 feet, 4 inches and 175 pounds of him, has the perfect disposition to be one of the game's great relief pitchers.
He didn't win Saturday night, but he didn't take the game back to the hotel with him. He didn't brood about it. He didn't worry about it. And, above all, he didn't let it affect his performance the next day.
"It's tough to let a game like that get away after the guys fought so hard to win," he said, "but as far as my approach to tomorrow is concerned, I went out there today and did everything I wanted to do. It just didn't work out. I'm realistic enough to know I'm not infallible, that it's not always going to work out. That's the hazard of being a sinkerball pitcher. Sometimes they hit the ball in the holes."
In the early days, Tekulve acknowledged, "It was a little tougher (to accept a game like Saturday night's), because it almost seemed like your whole career hinged on every performance. It's a little easier to accept now than it was then, even if it isn't any more fun."
"He's a helluva guy," Tanner was saying when Tekulve was out of hearing range. "He knows that I know every time he goes out I'm putting one of the best in the business out there.
"The game is mental. To be a good relief pitcher is more mental than anything else. It's a unique job...."
And Tekulve is uniquely suited for it with his steady disposition... and that sinking fastball.
"There are a lot of great relievers," the Pirates' manager said, "and I've had some of them – Terry Forster, Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers, Enrique Romo, Grant Jackson. But the thing he (Tekulve) has accomplished is he can go out there in 90 games for you if necessary every year.
"His attitude is what makes him so good. He doesn't like it if we lose, but he can cope with it. I've always believed this: You'll never win if you're afraid to lose."
Fear of losing is not in Tekulve's mind when he walks to the mound on one of those 90 or 100 trips he makes each season. Heck, he didn't even seem worried when Tanner stuck him in left field for one batter with two out in the ninth inning a year ago in order to bring in lefthander Jackson to face the Giants' Darrell Evans.
Evans promptly hit a fly ball to left...and Tekulve caught it.
"That's why he's a winner," Tanner said. "He didn't go out afraid. He caught it relaxed."
And after he caught it, clinching the Pirates victory, he went to Tanner and said, "Skip, I was thinking of dropping the ball so I could come in (to pitch again) and get the last out and get a save."
"If you had," Tanner remembered telling him, "I'd have killed you."
And then, no doubt, they both laughed... and went off to think up new wisecracks, new insults.
"I thought up one the other day," Tanner was saying yesterday. "He even said, 'Hey, that's a new one.' Damn, I wish I could remember what it was."
Tekulve couldn't remember either. "Every time I turn around, he comes up with another one," the All-Star reliever said. "It doesn't bother me. I don't care about anything. I live from day to day...."
From ground ball to ground ball. From save to save. From insult to insult.
"I'll tell you why I do that," his manager said with a straight face. "It really gives him an image, and publicity never hurt anybody. I do it to help him. He's had some big writeups.
"Now people know who he is. They want to go out and see a guy that looks like Ichabod Crane or a plucked chicken...."
Without drawing a deep breath, Kent Tekulve's manager and No. 1 booster spewed a stream of one-liners, each a little more insulting than the one before.
"But," said Chuck Tanner, finally pausing, "when I put him on the mound in the ninth inning, he looks like Paul Newman to me."
It required the greatest amount of self-control imaginable for a listener to refrain from saying, "Gee, Chuck, I didn't even know Paul Newman had been sick."