Valenzuela As a Rookie Was Not Supposed To Start Opening Day In 1981
Twenty four hours before he was supposed to take the mound on Opening Day, Los Angeles lefty Jerry Reuss suffered an injury. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda naturally called upon veteran starter Burt Hooten to fill in, only Hooton had just pitched just three days earlier in the final Spring Training game.
It was only April 9, so there should have been little reason to panic. However, Lasorda and his club were facing their most formidable opponent in the Houston Astros, the very team that beat the Dodgers out for the National League West title the previous season.
It was not a choice Lasorda would have made except under these extraordinary conditions of losing your number one starter and having to open against the reigning champs, but in hindsight it was the best move the Dodgers skipper ever made. He started a portly left handed rookie, the virtually unknown Fernando Valenzuela.
Not many in Chavez Ravine were familiar with Valenzuela when he delivered his first pitch to Terry Puhl, but they cheered when the result was a ground out to shortstop Bill Russell. The joy was short-lived, however, when Houston's second batter, Craig Reynolds, lined a double to left.
Now the Astros were holding the cards, a runner in scoring position with right handed All-Star slugger Cesar Cedeno at the plate against a rookie left hander. Valenzuela managed to get the veteran to pop out to second baseman Davey Lopes, but he was far from off the hook.
Houston's best run producer and cleanup hitter Jose Cruz stepped up, characteristically unfazed by facing a lefty. Cruz's contact was much more solid than Cedeno's, yet the ball landed in the glove of left fielder Dusty Baker.
Valenzuela, despite having shut down Houston for one inning, had yet to endear himself to Lasorda and Dodgers fans. Their skepticism was not quelled when Fernando walked the lead off hitters in each of the next two frames, including opposing pitcher Joe Neikro.
His offense had not offered any help for Valenzuela until the fourth, when Steve Garvey tripled and came home on a sac fly by Ron Cey. No other support proved necessary, for Fernando went on to shut the Astros down for the rest of the game as well.
San Francisco hitters had an equally difficult time figuring out Fernando less than a week later, when the lefty blanked the Giants over the fist seven innings. By that time the Dodgers had already plated four runs against Vida Blue, so there was little worry after Enos Cabell drove in Larry Herndon in the eighth.
Valenzuela stayed in to pitch a scoreless ninth, and a few days later he shut out the Padres in San Diego to make him 3-0 in three starts. Followed another shutout of the Astros against future Hall of Fame right hander Don Sutton, and he closed out April by blanking the Giants.
May started in the same manner for Fernando, even though the Montreal Expos did manage to get a run off of him in the seventh. Then in New York he beat Mike Scott and the Mets 1-0 for his seventh win in as many starts.
When the Expos got him for two runs on May 14, it looked as if the magic had finally faded. Los Angeles, however, got the win when Pedro Guerrero hit a walk off home run in the ninth. Fernando mania was now in full swing, even after he lost for the first time a week later against the Phillies.
He rebounded two starts later, hurling yet another shut out. His dominance continued throughout the 1981 season, which culminated in a Cy Young Award as well as a World Series Championship against the New York Yankees.
He would win even more games the next year, finishing as runner up for the Cy Young Award. He would also appear in six straight All-Star games and earn 173 wins before the end of his career, which has forever been defined by that first sparkling season that began exactly forty years ago.