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NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES : Work in Tijuana Does Wonders for Leary : Right-Hander Starts Tonight Against Mets

Times Staff Writer

That long stretch of freeway connecting Pacific Palisades to Tijuana presents diverse sights and landscapes for a driver’s viewing pleasure during a long trip.

But Dodger pitcher Tim Leary, who made this commute at least once a week last winter in an old pickup truck, was not in it simply for the aesthetic experience.

With a pregnant wife to support, college classes for which to study and a foundering baseball career to revive, Leary merely drove. He said he tried not to ponder anything during those days of upheaval.

Leary was pitching for the Tijuana Potros in the Mexican winter league. He was trying to refine his split-fingered off-speed pitch and reclaim his fastball after a 1987 Dodger season during which he had lost both pitches, as well as 11 of his 14 decisions.

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Leary’s career, which had followed a long and winding road with plenty of detours, depended on it.

In 1979, the New York Mets made Leary a first-round draft pick. The right-handed Leary, who had starred at UCLA, was rushed to the major leagues in 1981 after only one season in the minors, and in the first inning of his first major league start, Leary suffered an injury to his right shoulder.

After rehabilitating his arm following a trade to the Milwaukee Brewers, Leary won 12 games in 1986 and seemed to have his career in line.

Then came the trade to the Dodgers--the Brewers got Greg Brock for Leary and Tim Crews--and the resumption of Leary’s struggles. After not pitching during the winter of 1986, Leary had a weak arm, as well as weak statistics, in 1987.

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So, in an effort to save his career yet still stay home to complete his degree at UCLA and be with his wife during her pregnancy, Leary chose to commute. He made a deal with the Potros that he would be there for his starts, once every 4 or 5 days. If it was a road game, Leary would drive to the airport in Tijuana, fly to Mazatlan or wherever the game was, then return to Tijuana the next day and drive back to Pacific Palisades.

“It was by far the best situation for me,” Leary said.

Those might also have been the most important 3 months of Leary’s professional life. He had a 9-0 record with a 1.24 earned-run average, honed his split-fingered pitch and got the speed back on his fastball.

And this season, he had a 17-11 record, a 2.91 earned-run average, 6 shutouts and 9 complete games. He was the Dodgers’ best starting pitching before a late-season slump.

Those 100 innings pitched south of the border, combined with the 32 he pitched in spring training and a career-high 223 during the season, might have helped Leary revive his career but they might also have worn him out.

The Dodgers are hoping that Leary’s right arm will be fresh tonight. He is scheduled to start Game 6 of the National League championship series, with the Dodgers leading the New York Mets, 3 games to 2.

In his last 7 starts, Leary had a 5.13 ERA and allowed 7 home runs, 16 walks and 43 hits in 40 innings. The slump, which Leary blames on poor mechanics but Manager Tom Lasorda says was caused by fatigue, has somewhat obscured Leary’s impressive comeback. Leary made his first appearance in the playoffs in the 12th inning of the Dodgers’ 5-4 victory in Game 4 Sunday night. He faced 3 batters, giving up 2 singles and getting a fly-ball out before being replaced.

Despite his recent struggles on the mound, Leary’s startling turnaround from a poor 1987 season is one of the major reasons for the Dodgers’ turnaround.

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“The guy has been great,” Lasorda said. “He’s won 17 games. Where would we be without those 17 wins? . . . Leary’s been a big part of our season, I tell you that.” And it all began with his decision to play winter ball in Mexico. Actually, Leary almost had to play somewhere over the winter to show the Dodgers he was serious about contributing this season. His options included Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. But Leary brought up the Mexican alternative.

“Mike Brito (Dodger scout) had been down there the year before, and he set it up,” Leary said. “It was a 2- to 3-day experience just for one start. But it was better than a 6-day road trip in Puerto Rico.”

Because there wasn’t a clubhouse at the Tijuana Stadium, Leary would leave his home in uniform at 2 p.m. for a night game, stopping for a hamburger on the way. He usually got to the border by 5 p.m. Twice, Leary said, he was stopped by the the border patrol, thinking it odd that someone would enter their country in such a get-up. Once, on a trip to a road game, Leary had to endure 20 hours of flight delays and bus rides to make his appointed start.

Leary shrugs when others say his dedication should be commended.

“It was just something I had to do,” he said. “I couldn’t sit around. I wanted to pitch this year. There were a lot of scouts there watching. I figured one of three things could happen to me after that. Either I’d be traded, released, or I’d pitch for the Dodgers.”

That last option was Leary’s preference. And, when Bob Welch was traded in December, two spots in the Dodgers’ rotation were open. Leary would have to compete with rookies Tim Belcher and Shawn Hillegas.

Leary liked his chances, especially after the improvement he showed in the Mexican League. Although Leary said the quality of competition was equivalent to triple-A play, he nonetheless dominated hitters with three variations on his fastball and the split-fingered pitch, his version of a changeup.

Those were the only pitches Leary threw. He abandoned his curveball altogether. He pitched so well that the Brewers, who had traded Leary in 1986, scouted Leary and made an offer to Fred Claire, the Dodgers’ executive vice president.

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Claire, unsure about the Dodgers’ starting pitching after Welch’s departure, turned down the offer. It might have been the best trade Claire never made.

Still, Leary had a lot to prove, to himself and Dodger management, when he reported for spring training. At the very least, Leary said, his arm was in better shape. Leary, in fact, blames his disastrous 1987 season on a lax off-season. “I took 6 weeks off after the (1986) season,” Leary said. “Then, when I started working out again, my arm wasn’t strong. I kept working on it in spring training, but it was tough because I had to try to earn the fifth spot in the rotation.”

Ultimately Leary was relegated to the role of long reliever, which did nothing to help build strength in his arm.

“I just pitched terrible at the start,” Leary said. “Had I been with the Brewers, I might have pitched through it. But I had to earn a start here. Even when I pitched effectively near the end of the season, I didn’t feel like I was strong. I felt improvement, but I needed to pitch more.” Leary seized his chance this season. In the spring, he had a 3-0 record and a team-leading 1.71 ERA. He struck out 22 and walked 6 in 32 innings. He had earned the third spot in the rotation behind Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela.

Just as Hershiser relies upon his sinking fastball and Valenzuela his screwball, Leary used his deceptive split-fingered pitch and his sinking fastball to fool hitters. Unlike Houston’s Mike Scott and other split-fingered practitioners, Leary is self-taught. He said he read a magazine article about Roger Craig teaching pitchers to throw it and picked it up from there. Leary also enlisted the advice of former Brewer teammate Mark Knudson about the proper grip on the ball.

The split-fingered pitch is effective because it comes to the plate like a regular fastball, then tails off sharply. The pitch has been particularly effective for Leary as a changeup, because he uses the same quick arm motion as he does with a fastball.

“Last year, I threw it some, but I didn’t have the arm strength,” Leary said. “I didn’t have the arm speed on it, either. I was hanging that pitch, just like I was hanging the curveball. My fastball didn’t work last year because I didn’t have the split as my second pitch.

“In winter ball, my last 6 starts down there, I went with only my fastball and the split. I really worked on it. If you throw hard, have big hands and you don’t have a consistent breaking pitch, then this is the pitch for you.”

So, Leary smuggled that improved split-fingered pitch across the border and has used it in Florida and now in every National League city. Even after his recent slump, Leary has a strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 177 to 53. His 6 shutouts were second only to Hershiser’s 8.

Lately, though, the ball has not done the things it did for Leary earlier in the season. After Aug. 21, when he pitched a 6-hit shutout over Montreal, striking out 12, Leary won only 3 of 7 decisions. In his last win, Sept. 12, he allowed 4 runs in 5 innings to the Atlanta Braves.

“He has to be tired,” Lasorda said at the end of the regular season. “We have to give him rest and critique what he’s doing wrong. But I think he’s going to be all right.”

Lasorda, and Leary, will find that out tonight.


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