Wilmington Morning News - October 10, 1980
Phils’ hopes are riding on Christenson
By Hal Bodley, Sports Editor
HOUSTON – Larry Christenson was born with one imperfect vertebra way down in his spine.
But contrary to popular belief, he was not born on Friday the 13th and a black cat didn't dash in front of the car en route to the hospital. And, no, his mom wasn't wheeled under a ladder on her way to the delivery room.
Larry Christenson, you see, has checked all these things out because there are times when he wonders why one guy has to be so unlucky.
Heck, the vertebra is enough of a handicap without all the other things.
If ever there was an accident-prone athlete, it's Larry Richard Christenson.
When he goes to the Astrodome mound Hal Bodley today with the precarious mission of putting the Phillies up 2-1 in the best-of-five National League playoffs against Houston, keep one thing in mind: He's spent more time in hospitals than Marcus Welby, more time on ice than Eric Heiden.
Since he became a professional pitcher in 1972, he's been out with bad backs, groin and hamstring pulls, broken collarbones, bone spurs, bone chips and other minor ailments.
"Maybe I should have bought the violin after all," Christenson says. "It might have been easier."
When Christenson was in seventh grade a specialist told him to quit sports and take up the violin. With the vertebra problem, the doc felt Larry would never hold up in athletics.
But here he is today, getting Manager Dallas Green's call to go against knucker-baller Joe Niekro as the Phillies attempt to put the heartburn of Wednesday night's 7-4, 10-inning nightmare out of their systems.
It's a pressure game for Christenson, but he says the pressure will be nothing like it was when he came back from a groin pull on Sept. 24 and had to prove to everyone he was healthy enough to help the Phils down the stretch.
"I had to worry about my leg breaking down in that start against the Mets," he said, "but it turned out fine. I only gave up four hits over eight innings. To me, that is pressure."
But if Christenson, who had surgery in late May to remove bone chips, does not have a strong game the Phillies are in trouble. After coughing up Wednesday night's decision, they cannot afford to let the Astros take a 2-1 lead in the Dome and expect to win their first National League pennant since 1950.
The 26-year-old right-hander started just 14 games this past season because of all the injuries. He was out most of 1979 because of a fractured collarbone and later another groin pull.
Had it not been for his outstanding return against the Mets, he probably wouldn't even be in uniform today. The Phils were not counting on him and had already planned to scratch him for post-season games in favor of rookie sensation Marty Bystrom. Christenson wasn't about to buy that without first proving he can pitch.
He passed the test and will take his 10-5 lifetime record against Houston to the mound with him today.
"I've always pitched well in the Astrodome," he said. "I think it is a pitcher's park. For some reason, you feel a lot closer to the hitters than you do in some of the others. I have the same feeling at Shea Stadium. You get the sensation you're on top of the hitters."
At the Dome, hitters have to crush a ball to get it out.
"That allows me to pitch my kind of game," said Christenson after yesterday's late-afternoon workout. "I usually like to throw mostly fast-balls and sliders, but I think I will have to go with all four pitches tomorrow if I am going to be effective. I'm going to need my change and curve.
"To beat them, we have to keep Terry Puhl off the bases. I thought he had too many good fastballs to hit in the first two games and he hurt us. He almost single-handedly won that game on Wednesday with his bat. We've been able to hold Art Howe down so far and Jose Cruz hasn't shown that much."
Christenson has only pitched 73⅔ innings and admits that's not very many. Since coming back, he has worked only 20⅓ innings.
"Even in the game at Montreal last Saturday I had some stiffness," said Christenson. "It's like I'm still in spring training, but when I go up to the plate sometimes and see guys throw what I think is unhittable, I know I have that kind of stuff, too. I have been going over their lineup the past two days and think I know it pretty well.
"You know, pressure is pressure. We put a lot of it on ourselves when we let them win the Wednesday night game."
Christenson didn't hesitate when he said, "Now it's up to me to take some of that pressure off our backs."
Phillies to face knuckler Niekro
By Ray Finocchiaro, Staff Correspondent
PHILADELPHIA - The Phillies are being accused in many quarters of getting the customary post-season lump in their throats. That may or may not be true, but one thing is certain, they choke on the name Niekro.
The Niekro brothers, Atlanta's Phil and Houston's Joe, are always a handful for the Phillies. They're a mittful for their catchers, too, but that's another story.
It's white-knuckle time for the Phillies today. They face the Astros today at 3 p.m.. (EST) under the Astrodome in Game Three of the best-of-five National League Championship Series. Each team has a victory, and with the balance of the series in the Astros' domain, the Phils can ill afford to knuckle under today.
But they'll have to beat Joe Niekro, at 35, the younger of the two knuckleballers from Martins Ferry, Ohio, clan. Niekro, who has a major league fastball and curve to complement the dancing deliveries, is confident the Phils will fall.
"I've had success against them," the blond, pudgy-faced right-hander said after Wednesday's game at Veterans Stadium. "Last year I beat them both times. I pitched against them twice this year and got beat both times."
Neither Phils' victory was an awesome display of offense.
The first was a 4-2 decision May 17, when Niekro struggled in one inning, the second, and yielded all four runs. Ironically the key blow was a three-run home run by Larry Christenson, his mound opponent today.
When the Phils beat him again, 2-1 on July 17, he was victimized by his own butterfly pitches and the brilliant 10-strikeout effort of Steve Carlton. The Phils scuffled to one run on a groundout and another on two wild pitches.
They might just have to beat him that way again. The air in the Astrodome is still and sullen – just like the Phils' clubhouse – and balls do not carry well there, especially when the pitches are delivered as slowly as the U.S. mail.
The burden will be on either Luis Pujols or Alan Ashby to keep Niekro's serves in play and any Phillies runners mired to their base.
They can look as bad behind the plate as the hitters do at it.
"I wish I could use a mitt as big as that," said Ashby on Wednesday, pointing to the backstop. "We feel real bad about passed balls but there's not much we can do."
They can wear the pillow, the oversized glove that makes a regular catcher's mitt "feel like a gardener's glove with shoestrings on it," according to Ashby. But passed balls and wild pitches go with the territory.
So do victories. Niekro defeated Los Angeles 7-1 in the Western Division playoff game Monday. It was his 20th victory against 12 losses with a 3.59 earned run average. The season, excellent as it was, was not quite the equal of a 21-11, 3.00 log in '79. The 21 victories were an Astros record.
"This year I gave up more hits than innings pitched," said Niekro, who yielded 267 in 256⅔ frames. "But I gave up fewer walks (82 this year, 107 last), so the end result's about the same.
"Everything depends on how the ball is moving," he said, referring to his knuckler. "When you've got a good one, it's going to be moving all over. I throw it to spots, sure, a spot from the shoulder to the knees.
If it's a close ballgame, and I'm getting it over, I'll throw it 80 percent of the time. The big thing is to establish it early, get it over the plate.
"If I go out there and have a wild first inning, I know the batter might be taking and I'm falling behind in the count, it's trouble. If I'm in command early, I settle down and stay ahead, just like any other pitcher."
But Niekro is like no other pitcher, except one, brother Phil.
Phil Niekro has been with the Braves throughout his major-league career. Joe, on the other hand, has made five stops, until the maturation of the Astros, with nothing but tail-enders. Now he's in a position Phil must envy, a chance to boost his club within a game of the World Series after already pitching it to the division title.