RICK HONEYCUTT IS. . .KNUCKLING DOWN : Dodger Pitcher, However, Still Relies on His Sinker

Times Staff Writer

Tony Perez of the Cincinnati Reds had trouble believing his 45-year-old eyes.

A day later, the Dodgers' Enos Cabell still was laughing at the puzzled expression Perez had been wearing when he reached first base and turned to stare at Dodger pitcher Rick Honeycutt.

"Tony said, 'What was that?' " Cabell recalled.

"I said, 'Honey's throwing a knuckler.'

"Perez said he thought it was a spitter. Honey's been known to throw a spitter."

Until Tuesday night, though, no opposing hitter knew of Honeycutt throwing a knuckleball, a pitch that appeared to be on the verge of extinction in the National League when the last known practitioner, Joe Niekro, was traded to the New York Yankees by the Houston Astros last fall.

But it's like when Astaire dances. You know it can't be anybody else. The same is true of a knuckler. The dips and dives it takes can't be duplicated. No one knew that Honeycutt could make a baseball dance that way, but Perez and the rest of the Reds know now.

"When I saw the looks those guys were giving me, I could tell the pitch was worth pursuing," Honeycutt said.

Is he a latter-day Hoyt Wilhelm or Charlie Hough, the only L.A. Dodgers previously known to have a knack for the knuckler? (Save your cards and letters, Burt Hooton fans; he threw a knuckle-curve).

Not yet. Honeycutt estimates that he threw only nine knucklers in the Dodgers' 1-0 win over the Reds.

The pitch still is a novelty, both for the Dodger left-hander and the batters who face him. It can hardly receive credit for Honeycutt's recent resurgence, in which he has allowed just one run in 22 innings, none in the last 16 and has lowered his earned-run average to 2.28--lower than Fernando Valenzuela's 2.86, Orel Hershiser's 2.98 or Bob Welch's 3.89.

"The last few games, he's been great," Cabell said. "Better than the rest of them."

For now, Honeycutt still rises or falls with his sinker. The knuckler, however, may prolong his career, one that was suspended in uncertainty because of the shoulder problems he has had almost from the time he became a Dodger in August 1983.

"At 44, I may need that pitch," said a grinning Honeycutt, who will be 32 on June 29.

It's a pitch he learned to throw as a 13-year-old back in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., but kept around only for amusement in the big leagues.

"I threw it all the time in high school and college," said Honeycutt, who essentially taught himself the pitch after a kids'-league coach had demonstrated it to him.

"I remember one game in high school, I pitched 15 innings, and after the 10th I threw all knuckleballs."

In Texas, where Honeycutt was a teammate of former Dodger Hough, they used to show off their knucklers while playing catch in the outfield.

"I didn't want to get hit in the shins without a chance to get him back," Honeycutt said.

But Honeycutt never gave much thought to putting a plaything to work.

"I always felt I could throw one," he said, "but people said, 'You don't need that. You've got good enough stuff without it.' Their attitude was, if that's going to be your best pitch, go for it, but if it's your fourth-best pitch, why waste your time?"

That all changed last week in Philadelphia, where Honeycutt had bullpen catcher Todd Maulding going through contortions in pursuit of the pitch.

"It was just dancing like crazy," Honeycutt said. "Mark Cresse (the Dodger bullpen coach) said, 'Geez, that looks pretty good.' "

Cresse relayed his impressions to pitching coach Ron Perranoski, who gave Honeycutt the go-ahead to use the pitch in a game.

"They're the first ones who ever said, 'Yeah, try it,' " Honeycutt said. "Nobody else took it seriously enough."

For now, Honeycutt is using the pitch as a changeup, complementing his sinker, slider and curve. Unlike Hough or Niekro, he grips the ball with three fingers instead of two, which gives the knuckler more rotation than he would like.

"My hands are smaller than theirs," he said. "But it's a pitch you can somewhat perfect. And for me, who isn't a strikeout pitcher, a pitch like that could be super."

Given the fragile nature of Honeycutt's left shoulder, a pitch like that could also add years to his baseball life. It certainly should beat jogging, which aggravated an already deteriorating shoulder when Honeycutt took a fall while running through the Dodger parking lot with teammate Tom Niedenfuer during the '84 season.

Honeycutt tried to hurdle a chain barrier, but Edwin Moses he wasn't. "I could have jumped that thing but I caught my left foot and went down like a ton of bricks," he said.

By the end of the '84 season, the arthritic condition had worsened to the point where he required surgery to shave the tip of his shoulder blade. He did little last season to quell suspicions that his shoulder still wasn't right, going 8-12, completing just 1 of 25 starts and winding up in the bullpen for a spell.

"I'm not going to kid you," he said. "The end of '84, then '85, that was the toughest year I've ever been through.

"Last year was the first time I've ever really been on a championship club, and then not to be able to contribute the way I wanted to. . . . Then, coming back from surgery, not knowing what to expect. . . . I'm a very optimistic person, but this game tests you in every aspect."

The self-doubt was inevitable.

"He's always been a good pitcher but he had all those physical problems," said Cincinnati third baseman Buddy Bell, who played with Honeycutt in Texas. "Knowing Honeycutt the way I do, that had to be killing him.

"I'm in a similar situation here, not doing as well as I'd like to be doing. The kind of competitor he is, I'm sure it's eating at him. But I don't think he should be ashamed or embarrassed. He'll always do whatever it takes to win."

When he was with Seattle, Honeycutt once tried something as exotic--and illegal--as attaching a tack to a baseball. Here, he resorted to something as mundane--but essential--as hard work.

Each day, for 45 minutes, Honeycutt follows an exercise routine prescribed by Pat Screnar, Dodger physical therapist. Twenty minutes on the Nautilus machines, 10 minutes with free weights, 8 to 10 minutes on the Cybex machine, another 10 minutes of hand-resistance exercises with Screnar, during which Honeycutt lies on his back and goes through his pitching motion while Screnar grasps his hand and supports his elbow.

"My arm is feeling stronger than it has in a long time," said Honeycutt, even though his stamina is such that complete games are now rarities. "I attribute my success to that as much as anything. It's just tough to pitch consistently and successfully with any kind of physical problem, much less a shoulder problem.

"Pat's done a super job working with me. Last year, he gave me a big lift psychologically because he was about the only one I could talk to about it and understand what was going on. There were times I didn't want to do anything, but he'd push me up."

Is Rick Honeycutt back, the one who was an All-Star with the Rangers in '83, when he led the American League in earned-run average? The Honeycutt the Dodgers have only seen glimpses of?

That Honeycutt, a healthier version, may be only a memory. This Honeycutt, however, could be a winner.

"I'm not hanging my hat on three games that I'm back," he said. "But I'm getting close.

"If I can go another 3 1/2 months like this, then I'll know I'm back. But until I finish the year without any major setbacks, I'm just going to keep working as hard as I can."

And maybe he'll even start hitting. Honeycutt, who was an All-American first baseman at the University of Tennessee, is still without a hit in 15 at-bats, which puts him way behind in the private pool among the Dodger starting pitchers.

Honeycutt gestured toward Valenzuela. "He's been getting into our pockets regularly," he said.

But, hey, Fernando doesn't throw a knuckler.

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