Nolan Ryan, baseball's reigning strikeout king, became the first pitcher in major league history to reach the 4,000 mark Thursday night when he struck out New York's Danny Heep in the sixth inning of a game won by the Astros, 4-3, in 12 innings.
Ryan, 38, who went into the game seven strikeouts short of 4,000, reached the milestone when Heep, the leadoff hitter in the sixth, swung at an 0-and-2 curveball in the dirt.
The crowd at the Astrodome, which included Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, gave Ryan a two-minute standing ovation as catcher Mark Bailey trotted to the mound to shake the pitcher's hand. Ryan's teammates on the field and in the dugout also applauded.
Ryan tipped his cap several times while standing on the pitching rubber. The ovation finally subsided when he threw a pitch to the next batter, Rafael Santana.
But the crowd was up again when Ryan struck out Santana and pitcher Sid Fernandez to end the sixth and run his total 4,002.
"It was good to see the fans get involved in something like this, and I'm glad to see it turned out in a positive way with us winning," Ryan said. "I felt like the fans came to see me accomplish it."
Ryan, who has five no-hitters on his record, started his run to 4,000 by striking out Len Dykstra to open the game. He got Santana and Fernandez in the second, Fernandez again in the fourth and Darryl Strawberry and Gary Carter in the fifth.
Ryan, who started his career with the Mets, struck out 11 batters, his season high, before leaving after seven innings with the score tied, 3-3. The 11 strikeouts boosted his total to 4,004 and extended to 158 his major league record of games with 10 or more strikeouts. It was the third time this season he had 10 or more strikeouts in a game.
Heep was unavailable for comment afterward, but Carter praised the strikeout artist.
"It was quite an accomplishment," the Met catcher said. "What else can you say about a 38-year-old power pitcher except give him respect and admiration. He's great tribute to the game. Not too many guys, maybe a Dwight Gooden, will ever have a chance to get 4,000 strikouts."
Fernandez said: "I was glad just to be a part of this game. I'll remember it the rest of my life."
Ryan, who started the game with an 85-strikeout career lead over his nearest rival, Philadelphia's Steve Carlton, currently on the disabled list, said he never imagined early in his career that he'd still be pitching in his late 30s.
"The two keys for me are due to the fact that I've concentrated so many years on good mechanics of pitching and also I've concentrated on being as well-conditioned as possible," he said.
Bill Doran, who went 5 for 6, singled in the 12th to drive in Dickie Thon with the winning run.
NOTABLE STRIKEOUTS IN NOLAN RYAN'S CAREER
AS A MEMBER OF THE NEW YORK METS STRIKEOUT DATE OPPONENT BATTER NUMBER 1 Sept. 11, 1966 Atlanta Braves Pat Jarvis 100 June 18, 1968 Houston Astros Denny LeMaster
AS A MEMBER OF THE ANGELS STRIKEOUT DATE OPPONENT BATTER NUMBER 500 April 18, 1972 Minnesota Twins Charlie Manuel 1,000 July 3, 1973 Oakland A's Sal Bando 1,500 Aug. 25, 1974 New York Yankees Sandy Alomar 2,000 Aug. 31, 1976 Detroit Tigers Ron LeFlore 2,500 Aug. 12, 1978 Cleveland Indians Buddy Bell
AS A MEMBER OF THE HOUSTON ASTROS STRIKEOUT DATE OPPONENT BATTER NUMBER 3,000 July 4, 1980 Cincinnati Reds Cesar Geronimo 3,500 April 17, 1983 Montreal Expos Andre Dawson 3,508* April 27, 1983 Montreal Expos Tim Blackwell 3,509+ April 27, 1983 Montreal Expos Brad Mills 4,000 July 11, 1985 New York Mets Danny Heep
* Ties Walter Johnson's all-time major league strikeout record. + Breaks Walter Johnson's all-time major league strikeout record.