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Ryan's back on the track

Derailed by injuries since pitching his fourth no-hitter, the Angel with the fireball is healing nicely—and has even won in daunting New York

Nolan Ryan was removed from a game at Shea Stadium last week with a 3-1 lead in the seventh inning. It seemed a pivotal moment. He had never won at Shea as a member of the California Angels, nor fared well there during the five years he pitched for the New York Mets, and he was offended by the New York critics who claim that he chokes on the Big Apple.

So where was Nolan Ryan at the end of the game while the last of four relievers saved a redeeming win for him? "In the showers," Ryan said later. "I wasn't going to sweat it. The way this season has gone, I'm not setting my sights on statistical goals anymore." Then he walked out into the haze, a figure of major accomplishment reduced to rationalization.

You remember Nolan Ryan. One-third of the way through this lost season he had tied a record by pitching his fourth no-hitter, won 10 games, struck out 102 batters and been as much publicized as New York City's fiscal woes and Jaws. That he was sharing notoriety with tales of disaster should have been warning enough. Suddenly beset with injuries, Ryan lost eight straight. He has since taken four of his last five decisions and righted his record to 14-12, amid talk that his old stuff is back, but he admits to tiring in the late innings and talks wistfully of next spring.

He is neglecting statistics for good reason. With 186 strikeouts and a maximum of eight starts left, he will not reach 300, as he did for three consecutive seasons. A die-hard Ryan fan could still picture 20 wins. In the past two years Ryan won five of his last six and seven straight to exceed 20, and he is the pitcher of record in more than 90% of his starts, so anything is possible. "Don't count on it," he says. "I just want to get back in the groove."

In retrospect, his season was never as promising nor as disastrous as it alternately appeared. "I pulled a calf muscle, threw just 11 innings of spring training and rushed to get into shape," he says. "It's true that I had the best start of my career. I was pitching well—hitting spots, changing speeds—but I wasn't throwing as well as I'm capable of."

Despite his 10-3 start, Ryan struck out 10 or more batters just three times. In 1973, the year he set baseball's single-season strikeout record of 383, he had 23 such games. In 1972 and 1974, his other 300-strikeout years, he had 17 and 13, respectively.

Nonetheless, he seemed all but invincible when he threw a no-hitter against Baltimore on June 1 and followed it up five days later by two-hitting Milwaukee. The decline, however, was beginning. In the Milwaukee game he injured a back muscle and had the first cortisone shot of his career.

For the next 10 weeks Ryan was never completely healthy. On June 28 he pulled a groin muscle and was out 11 days. In his next start he injured a triceps muscle. He suffered a second groin pull Aug. 3, then strained it and sat out 12 days. "The groin pulls prevented me from pushing off the rubber," he says. "That's where I generate my velocity."

Ryan may have slowed his recovery by trying to pitch too soon after his injuries. So he was pitching hurt rather than badly. "I know what he was going through," says teammate Frank Tanana. "When you're hurt you don't have as much confidence. Your mind is on your injury."

During Ryan's troubles, Tanana (13-6) became the team's most effective pitcher and replaced Ryan as the major league strikeout leader. With a strikeout-walk ratio of nearly 4 to 1 (206-57), Tanana has shown remarkable ability for a 22-year-old—and remarkable poise. "It took me four years to learn what he picked up in two," says Oakland's Ken Holtzman. Like Ryan, Tanana developed a curve and changeup to improve the effectiveness of his good fastball. Unlike Ryan, he is mod, blond, left-handed and single.

The Angels have had two strong starters since Aug. 20, when Ryan beat Milwaukee 6-1 for his most satisfying win in 2½ months. He allowed three hits, struck out nine and retired 19 straight over one stretch of his 7‚Öî-inning stint.

In the Shea Stadium victory on Aug. 24 he struck out eight in six innings. Last weekend Manager Dick Williams elected to rest him rather than subject his arm to more stress in rainy Detroit.

"I've learned a lot this season," says Ryan. "I've learned I can win without the good stuff and can cope with situations as they come up. I realize I won't always have the ability I once had, so I'll be working harder than ever to get into shape for spring training."

It somehow seems fitting that Nolan Ryan should complete his peril-fraught season in a TV soap opera. He is making a cameo appearance this week in Ryan's Hope. When first seen he is in a hospital, having visited a boys-camp outing, been drawn into a basketball game and injured his knee. The soap opera ends happily. The season isn't over.