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Guerrero Homers, but Dodgers Lose, 8-4

Times Staff Writer

You figure any pitched ball that is hard to catch probably will be hard to hit. The Dodgers, face to face with Houston’s Joe Niekro, made the veteran’s knuckleball look like anti-matter Monday night. Only Pedro Guerrero could get a solid shot at the floater, hitting his 13th home run of the month.

But why should the other Dodgers have tagged the fluttering illusion; it eluded Astro catcher Alan Ashby, too. And he thought he knew where it was going.

Niekro, whose mastery of the unpredictable knuckleball has kept him in the big leagues for 16 seasons, was never better and never worse than in beating the Dodgers, 8-4, before 34,459 in Dodger Stadium. On the one hand, it’s good to keep the hitters guessing, which he did. On the other, the catcher should have some logical expectations regarding location. Which he didn’t.

“A hitter can swing and miss and not have any problem,” complained a beleaguered Ashby, who spent the night lunging desperately from side to side. “But I swing and miss and guys move out.”

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Ashby lost three pitches to the backstop and scrambled after enough others that the Dodgers were able to steal three bases. Even a Niekro strikeout was an adventure; Dave Anderson reached first on one of them.

“Alan had a tough day,” sympathized Dodger Mike Scioscia, a fellow catcher. “It’s no fun to catch a knuckleballer.”

Scioscia should know. He caught Niekro twice Monday night, once on the arm and once on the knee. Scioscia, as it turned out, was just two of the three hit batsmen. Niekro also nailed R.J. Reynolds, who said: “Better a knuckleball than a fastball.”

Amazingly, almost all of this went on in the first four innings, during which time Niekro’s knuckleball assumed the approximate flight path of a nervous bumblebee. In the first four innings, he had hit his three batters, issued five of his six walks and thrown two of his three wild pitches. Yet he managed to get out three bases-loaded innings. After all, nobody was hitting him to speak of. He spread four hits through those four innings.

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All the same, admitted Houston Manager Bob Lillis, “he was one pitch from coming out a couple of times.”

But Niekro’s knuckleball settled down and only Guerrero, who set a Los Angeles club record with his home run, was able to touch him. Guerrero’s solo blast in the ninth was the only Dodger hit in the last five innings.

So the Astros, who had been swept by the Dodgers in the Astrodome last week, averted a sweep here, and the second-place Dodgers, who had won their last five and eight of their last 10, move on to San Diego, where they open a three-game series with the division-leading Padres.

Niekro (5-7) said the knuckleball was living a life of its own those first four innings.

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“I had a good knuckleball,” he said. “It was just moving all over the place. It was weird. The first couple of innings, it took off left, like a curve. I was struggling, no doubt about it, but sometimes you struggle early and you find yourself.”

It helped that he got a lead, too. After the Dodgers had scored three quick runs, the last of them on a bases-loaded walk, the Astros began to hit on their old nemesis, Dodger pitcher Jerry Reuss (5-6). As a Dodger, Reuss was 16-5 vs. the Astros, winning 14 of his last 17 decisions against them.

“He has been a nuisance to us,” Niekro agreed. But then Glenn Davis lifted a one-on home run into the left-field stands. Kevin Bass followed in the fifth inning with a three-run home run to virtually finish Reuss.

That settled Niekro down as much as anything. “When you’re late in a game with a lead, you go easier,” Ashby said. “You pitch differently.”

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Also, said Niekro, when you have a lead, “you throw the knuckleball less.” Or at least better. Certainly it was over the plate, which is a difficult area in which to contend with so lively a pitch.

“If he could just get the knuckleball over the plate,” counseled Guerrero, “he’d win a lot of games.”

Guerrero should note that Niekro has won 198 games, and the ball has not always been over the plate. Monday night, he set a Houston record for walks which suggests as much.

Although Niekro was the focus of attention Monday night, his performance was hardly the least of the fun. There were, in addition to several fine fielding plays by both teams, spills aplenty.

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Dodger shortstop Mariano Duncan crossed in front of and then into second baseman Steve Sax to turn a routine ground ball into crowd-pleasing demolition derby in the sixth inning. And Niekro and first baseman Enos Cabell had a collision at first, although the runner was called out, in the fifth inning.

“It was like two different ball games,” Lillis marveled. A good one and a bad one.

Dodger Notes

The Dodgers left the bases loaded three times in the first four innings. Contrast that to the Astros, who scored seven of their eight runs with two outs. . . . The 15 hits by the Astros tied a season high for Dodger opposition. . . . The Astros were satisfied that they had broken a Dodger jinx, even if Monday night’s win was the first in a while. The Dodgers had been 10-2 over the Astros this year. . . . Dodger Mike Marshall, hospitalized for an appendectomy, was released Monday. He’s expected back at Dodger Stadium Friday night but only as a spectator. . . . The Dodger (L.A. and Brooklyn) one-month record was set by Duke Snider, when he hit 15 in August, 1953.

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GUERRERO’S HOME RUNS IN JUNE

Date Team Inning Pitcher June 1 Montreal 11th Jeff Reardon June 4 New York 6th Dwight Gooden June 7 at Atlanta 8th Dave Schuler June 8 at Atlanta 1st Rick Mahler June 10 at Cincinnati 4th John Stuper June 14 (2) at Houston 5th,7th Niekro, Solano June 15 at Houston 6th Bob Knepper June 16 at Houston 5th Mike Scott June 19 San Diego 7th Andy Hawkins June 21 Houston 5th Bill Dawley June 23 Houston 3rd Ron Mathis June 24 Houston 9th Joe Niekro


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