Skip to main content
Original Issue

So far so good so fast

The Phillies stirred two young arms into the rotation and while it may take a while to cook they're predicting full proof from the pudding

As of the moment, the pitching rotation of the Philadelphia Phillies includes two Cy Young Award winners, the star of last year's Marysville (Wash.) High School Tomahawks and a former biology major at Fresno State University who until this season had not pitched an inning of professional baseball.

Long-suffering Philadelphians will say that this sort of disparity in skill and experience has helped make Philadelphia baseball the amusing spectacle it has traditionally been. The Phillies themselves will argue that their beardless tyros, Larry Christenson and Dick Ruthven, will provide valuable support for veterans Steve Carlton and Jim Lonborg and will, in time, actually give the team a pitching staff of major league quality.

The ayes seemed to have had it when Christenson, last year's Tomahawk, pitched a five-hit, 7-1 win over the Mets in his first big-league start and his first game anywhere in professional baseball outside the Rookie League. Some of the edge has been taken off that achievement, however, with the gradual realization that even the kid next door or your Aunt Tillie could pitch a five-hitter against the Mets. And in his second start last week in Montreal, Christenson survived only five innings, giving up nine hits and two runs to the ordinarily inoffensive Expos.

Ruthven, the biology student, was somewhat less impressive in his professional debut last week against the Expos. He pitched but an inning and two-thirds and allowed four runs on five hits.

But the Phillies management, ever accustomed to the untoward, was not in the least dismayed by these, shall we say, uneven beginnings. In the 19-year-old Christenson and the 22-year-old Ruthven, the team believes the future is at hand. Manager Danny Ozark had really intended to keep only one of the two young righthanders on his roster, but he was so taken with their precociousness in spring training that he hastily slipped them both into the rotation.

"They were both deserving," says Ozark, who though born and reared in Buffalo, N.Y. looks a bit like a mountain man. "Every time out they pitched well. They showed great poise and concentration. They showed me they knew what they were doing out there on the mound. If both of these boys pitch as well as we think they can, we'll give a lot of people trouble."

Strong words in Philadelphia, perhaps, but Ozark is at least seconded by his pitching coach, Ray Rippelmeyer. "I know it's a big jump," he says, "but these two have the mental makeup to do it. There is no question about their arms. Both are major league. If they were one-pitch pitchers, I'd probably have them in the bullpen, but these guys have the equipment to be starters. Christenson actually has four good pitches—the fastball, curve, slider and changeup. Ruthven lacks only the slider. Now we'll just see how consistent they can be." For all the talk from their elders about their maturity and poise, Christenson and Ruthven remain refreshingly boyish. Neither expected to get so far so fast, they now freely admit. "I went into spring training with the idea that the highest I could go would be Triple A," says Christenson. "People would ask me if I thought I could make the big team and I'd just say, 'I'd like to, but I don't think so.' "

A rangy 6'4" 215-pounder with yellow hair and a disarming baby face, Christenson was a terror at old Marysville High, where, as he put it, "I threw seeds." In his senior year he struck out 143 batters in 72 innings and had an earned run average of 0.28. He was the Phillies' No. I selection in the June draft.

"We graduated June 5," he recalls. "We had a big graduation party that night. Took a bus to Tacoma and had a blast. I didn't get home until 7:30 in the morning. The phone rang at 8 and a scout said to me, 'Larry, we've drafted you No. 1. What d'ya think about that?' I was so sleepy I could hardly say anything, so I just said, That's nice,' and went back to bed. And then the phone really started ringing. Newspaper guys from everywhere. I had to get up and take a walk."

Christenson pitched last summer for the Phillies' rookie team at Pulaski, Va., an experience, he recalls ruefully, that he would happily forget. "It was a terrible town. The ball park was dumps and we had a dumpy clubhouse. I don't ever want to go back there."

At Pulaski he was asked to alter his pitching motion slightly so as to get more drive off the mound. The change did not appreciably increase his drive, but it did aggravate a congenital back ailment which he can neither pronounce, spell nor very accurately define. According to Dorland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary', "spondylolisthesis" is "a forward displacement of one vertebra over another, usually of the fifth lumbar over the body of the sacrum, or of the fourth lumbar over the fifth." According to Christenson, spondylolisthesis means mostly that "I don't have those two pronged things back there."

He is certain that "my back was really killing me last summer. I couldn't lift my left leg or my right arm. I was all messed up. A specialist in Philly told me to go home and rest, but I didn't want to so I ended up in relief back in Pulaski."

Subtly, Christenson changed his motion at least partway back to what it was. He has not been bothered since by his aching back.

Not much else has bothered him either. The older Phillies were astonished at the equanimity with which he faced up to his first major league start.

"I didn't really think much about it," says Christenson. "I just stood out on the mound and said, 'Here goes.' "

In one sense, Ruthven's approach to life in the big time is even more cavalier. When told by Ozark that he had made the team, he replied that he didn't want the job if he was not going to be allowed to pitch regularly. "I told him I'd rather go down to Eugene [the Triple A farm club] where I could get some work. I didn't want to just sit and watch." Ruthven, who looks like a young Lee Marvin, did not even start pitching seriously until he entered Fresno State. He had been drafted by the Orioles as an outfielder after his graduation from Irvington High School in Fremont, Calif., but he had opted for college. There, as he put it, "I started as an outfielder who could pitch and, because they didn't have any pitchers, ended up as a pitcher." He was an All-America last year, winning 10 games, losing three and striking out 153 hitters in 111 innings. But he, too, came to the Phillies with a physical disability—tendinitis in his right shoulder. Steve Carlton came to his aid.

"Steve saw me putting ice on my shoulder after practice one day and he asked me what was wrong. I told him and he said he'd had tendinitis, too, and that lifting weights had cleared it up. I didn't think anything more about it, but the next day there was a set of weights in front of my locker. Steve had bought them for me and he showed me how to use them. I think it's amazing that a man of his stature would help someone like me."

Ozark is convinced Ruthven can help the Phillies despite his miserable beginning. "The wind was bothering him out there that day. He threw some good pitches. I'm not in the least worried." Neither, apparently, is Ruthven, although mention of that minor disaster causes him to throw his hands theatrically in front of his face. Later he was advised that his next pitching opponent could be the mighty Bob Gibson.

"I don't care who it is," he said levelly—and then proceeded to five-hit St. Louis and Gibson for 7‚Öî innings. The Phillies won 2-1 and Danny Ozark's new rotation was spinning nicely.