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Belcher Is a Winner as Starter : Now That He’s Out of the Bullpen, 3-2 Victory is a Relief

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

After last week’s All-Star break, the Dodger starting pitcher for Sunday’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals had been listed as “undecided.” At first, Tim Belcher saw that and smiled.

He knew the starter was him. That’s what Dodger officials had told him Wednesday. He was being moved back into the rotation after a three-week exile in the bullpen.

But then on Thursday the starter was still listed as “undecided.” Friday, the same thing. So Belcher, who is rarely undecided about anything, became worried.

“The more they wouldn’t officially announce it, the more I wondered,” Belcher said. “You never really know what is going on around here, with all the talking they’ve been doing about trades.

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“I thought I might come in (Sunday) morning and see where they made a 14-player deal.”

They didn’t. Belcher started, and after six innings of work, ended some of the indecision.

Belcher blew the ball past Cardinal hitters and Dodger doubts through six innings, giving up two runs and striking out seven in a 3-2 victory before 43,655 at Dodger Stadium.

Providing the Dodgers hitless relief were John Wetteland (for one inning) and Jay Howell (for two innings and his 17th save), but it was Belcher who set the tone.

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“He was more intense out there than I’ve seen in a while,” pitching coach Ron Perranoski said.

“When he needed it he really went back there and got it,” Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said.

Did he ever need it. After being sent to the bullpen on June 24 when John Tudor moved into the rotation, Belcher had spent most of his time plotting strategies to get out.

He tried the back-door method--"I think I’m more valuable as a starter,” he said one day.

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He tried a more direct approach--"It’s no secret, I hate the . . . bullpen,” he said another day.

After he racked up a 4.34 ERA in nine relief appearances, and after Tudor reinjured his shoulder, Dodger officials finally got the message.

And Sunday, Belcher rewarded them, helping the club break a two-game losing streak and salvage a split of this four-game series.

Throwing like a man who spells relief B-O-R-I-N-G, Belcher worked out of two major jams, each time by simply throwing the ball faster than the hitters could swing their bats.

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In the third inning, after the Cardinals loaded the bases with none out, he struck out Vince Coleman and Milt Thompson and got Ozzie Smith on a fly out to save himself.

In the fourth inning, after giving up two runs on four consecutive Cardinals hits with none out, he got a double-play grounder by Tom Pagnozzi and a strikeout of Cardinal starter and loser Jose DeLeon.

Thanks to three Dodger runs in the second inning on Jeff Hamilton’s two-run triple and a throwing error by center fielder Thompson, the two Cardinal runs weren’t enough.

Belcher improved his record to 6-8, lowering his ERA to 3.38 while improving his season strikeout total to 108, ranking him among the league’s top five. DeLeon, another top strikeout pitcher, fanned four in six innings, giving him 113.

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But DeLeon has never been sent to the bullpen this year. As Belcher will tell you, the bullpen can do wonders for your game.

“I tried not to think about the bullpen thing too much, but it was on the back of my mind,” Belcher said. “I thought to myself, hey, I have a good outing, help us get a win, that will end all chance of them returning me to the bullpen.”

And so afterward, did he think his starting spot was secure?

“Oh no,” he said with a nervous laugh. “This is only one day. Things can change fast around here.”

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Especially after a day such as Sunday, when Belcher not only beat the Cardinals, but defeated one of the many teams that have inquired about his availability in a trade.

The Cardinals, who have made no secret of their admiration of Belcher, have offered the Dodgers center fielder Willie McGee, who returns to the lineup this week in San Francisco after being on the disabled list.

On Sunday, Belcher couldn’t have sold himself any better.

“Right now, we just have to worry about and take care of ourselves,” Belcher said of the Dodgers. “We take care of ourselves, things will start to happen.”

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He certainly took care of them in the third and fourth innings, beginning with Jose Oquendo’s third-inning leadoff single to left. Pagnozzi followed with a single past second baseman Willie Randolph into center field, and then DeLeon loaded the bases when third baseman Hamilton threw his sacrifice bunt too late to third base.

The Dodgers had just scored their three runs in the second inning. Belcher looked at the scoreboard and the bases and gulped.

“I thought, oh man, we had just gotten a lead and here I was with the bases loaded,” he recalled. “One mistake and they get a couple of runs. There was only one thing I could go for, the only thing that would stop them.”

It’s called a strikeout.

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“I leaned back and brought it a little harder,” he said of his pitches to Coleman and Thompson. “I had no choice.”

It got Belcher through to the fourth inning, when he was in danger of again giving up that lead.

This time he gave up a single to Pedro Guerrero, a double to Terry Pendleton, and run-scoring singles to Tom Brunansky and Oquendo. Facing Pagnozzi, Belcher reached back again. But this time the batter made contact. But the ball came right back to Belcher.

“I thought, oh great, a double play ball, this is great,” said Belcher, who promptly turned toward second and nearly threw the ball into center field.

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But Randolph was there, as he has been there all season. The second baseman stretched, made the catch and turned the double play. A strikeout of DeLeon ended the threat.

“I told Tim, ‘You see, it was good we put you in the bullpen, now you know how to work out of jams,’ ” Perranoski said with a smile.

Dodger Notes

The case of Kirk Gibson’s sore hamstrings becomes more curious. Sunday, Dr. Frank Jobe, the Dodgers’ medical director, said, “The stress of playing on those legs every day is not going to help them get better.” When told of that quote, Gibson said, “He’s right.” And yet Gibson, who was even moved to center field Sunday, is remaining in the lineup with a 28 for 155 (.181) slump that has dropped his average to .221.

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In rearranging their roster Sunday, the Dodgers asked waivers on pitcher Ricky Horton to make room for pitcher Ramon Martinez, which was expected. But then, less than 24 hours after announcing that Chris Gwynn was being sent to triple-A Albuquerque to make room for Mariano Duncan Saturday night, they decided to put Gwynn on the disabled list instead. Good thing, because Gwynn has complained that he still cannot run hard after breaking his foot June 12. “I can only hit, I can’t do anything else,” Gwynn said. “I don’t know how I can play every day anywhere.” Sending an injured player to the minor leagues is against terms of the Major League Players Assn. contract. While the Dodgers were aware of Gwynn’s foot problem Saturday night when they told him of his demotion, Vice President Fred Claire figured that pinch-hitting in the minor leagues is better than doing nothing in the major leagues. Gwynn met with Claire Sunday morning to explain that he felt differently, and the Dodgers changed his assignment.

As a player with at least five years’ experience, Horton exercised his right to refuse a demotion and was released. “I just feel I have a chance to stay in the big leagues somewhere, and there doesn’t look like much of a future here for me,” said Horton, 0-0 with a 5.06 ERA in 23 games.

Pitcher Orel Hershiser left Saturday’s game early with a stomach virus.


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