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Back on the comeback trail again

Fergie Jenkins was considered washed up, but now he's cleaning up in Texas

Thirteen years ago Jim Bunning of the Phillies, who later became the first pitcher since Cy Young to win 100 games in each major league, allowed men to reach first and third in a game against the Cardinals. It was the eighth inning, and the score was tied as Manager Gene Mauch strolled to the mound. "I'm taking you out," Mauch told Bunning.

After handing Mauch the ball, Bunning headed for the dugout, glancing back as he went to see who was relieving him. Then he stopped short and an expression of such deep affront crossed his face that Pat Corrales, the catcher that day and now a coach with the Texas Rangers, still laughs as he recalls it. "Are you serious?" Bunning yelled at Mauch. "Him?"

The object of Bunning's scorn was a gangly, 6'5", 21-year-old righthander named Ferguson Jenkins, who was making his first appearance in the major leagues. Jenkins took his warmup tosses, nervously stared in for Corrales' sign, checked the runners and threw the first pitch of his career where Dick Groat's head would have been had Groat not hit the dirt. "The next three deliveries were on the black," Corrales remembers, and Jenkins had the first strikeout of his career. After the 12th inning, he also had his first win.

Last week, pitching for Texas, Jenkins, who in recent seasons has again been the object of scorn, picked up win 217 against Milwaukee. The victory brought him within seven of Bunning's career total and placed him third among active pitchers, behind Jim Kaat (254 wins) and Gaylord Perry (248), who, at 39, are five years his senior. The victory over the Brewers last Monday was the fourth in a row for Jenkins. His loss to Seattle on Saturday dropped his record to 4-2, which is still the best on the Texas staff even though a month ago he was not a starter.

In his first three appearances after being elevated from the bullpen on April 25, Jenkins threw complete games against Kansas City, Boston and Milwaukee, allowing only one run each time out. Those performances came at a critical period for the Rangers. Picked by many to unseat Kansas City in the American League West, Texas stumbled out of the blocks with three wins in its first 13 games. The Rangers had lost nine of 10 when Manager Bill Hunter moved Jenkins into his rotation for a game against the Royals. Using the same smooth delivery that marked his style during his glory years with the Cubs, Jenkins retired the first 18 batters. He finished with a four-hitter, a 4-1 win and a bad case of exhaustion. "I was done on both sides," he said.

In that tiring hour and 48 minutes, Jenkins breathed new life into a career that had been flagging since the first season of an earlier stint with the Rangers. In 1974 he had a 25-12 record to become the young club's first star. As good as it was, that record was hardly startling; Jenkins had won 20 games in six of his previous seven seasons.

The victory over K.C. also breathed life into the Rangers, who rattled off seven straight wins. Since then they have flip-flopped along at a pace of about .500. Jenkins has not been riding the Ranger roller coaster. In his second start he faced the Red Sox, who traded him last winter for a song named John Poloni; the lefthanded Poloni is now in the minors. Boston also picked up a little pocket change in the deal. Jenkins threw another four-hitter against his former teammates, allowing one walk and no earned runs on his way to a 2-1 victory. After that, Red Sox Manager Don Zimmer must have been reciting his own rendition of Bunning's "Are you serious? Him?"

A torn Achilles tendon limited Jenkins' effectiveness in '76, his first season in Boston, and he says he pitched in pain for the Sox in '77 before losing his starting job and spending the last two months in Zimmer's doghouse, alongside fellow mutts Rick Wise and Jim Willoughby. Because Jenkins had won only 22 games in his two years with the Sox, it was assumed by most Bostonians and a lot of people elsewhere that he was washed up.

"The pain obviously bothered him," says Reggie Cleveland, a former Red Sox who was also picked up by Texas after this season started. "Pain breaks your concentration. Suddenly a pitch is off by six inches, and it's a rope instead of an out. In Boston, if you don't pitch well, you don't pitch. There is no such thing as waiting out a slump."

Jenkins has rarely had to deal with slumps. From 1967 through 1972, when he played for the Cubs, he was baseball's most consistent winner, a veritable pitching machine. He worked an average of 306 innings a season and won 20 or more games six consecutive times, a feat accomplished by only two other pitchers—Hall of Famers Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts—in recent baseball history. Jenkins also led the National League in complete games three years, including one season in which he had 30. Says Jenkins, "Leo Durocher used to tell me, 'When I send you out there, you're there for the duration, kid.' We never had much of a bullpen in Chicago, but my mother always told me to finish things I'd started, so I was used to it."

In 1973, his last year with the Cubs, the Jenkins pitching machine threw a main bearing. He gave up a formidable 29 home runs before the All-Star break and was traded to Texas after a 14-16 season. In 1975 Jenkins served up 37 gopher balls in spacious Arlington Stadium. That led to his being traded to Boston and to the rise of the premature reports of his demise.

What those reports failed to mention was that Jenkins has always allowed a lot of home runs. He has led his league in that department six times, including 1971 when he won the Cy Young Award. That is the price he pays for being a precision pitcher—he estimates he can get his bread-and-butter slider in the strike zone 80% of the time, and has averaged only 1.8 walks per nine innings during his career—who won't throw at a batter's head. Or even at his elbow. "I figure if a pitcher wants to go headhunting, he should play hockey instead of baseball," says Jenkins. In the off-season, Jenkins does just that in his hometown of Blenheim, Ontario, and he blames many of his 1975 gopher balls on a broken knuckle sustained while headhunting with a right cross during a hockey brawl.

Jenkins was determined not to knuckle under this year, and Hunter, despite relegating Jenkins to the bullpen in the beginning of the season, sees no reason why Jenkins should. "We knew he could still throw," Hunter says. "He was coming off that heel injury last season. That takes at least a year to heal. The injury would have ended the careers of most guys his age, but he keeps himself in shape. Fergie's got a lot of pitching left in him."

Two years will be enough for Jenkins. "I'd like to win 250 games and end up with at least 100 in each league," he says. He needs 32 more American League victories to join Young, Bunning and Perry in the 100-100 club. "And I want to get some more strikeouts. They're important." Jenkins, who whiffed 13 batters in his two games last week to run his career total to 2,480, should move into the Top Ten this year, passing Don Drysdale, Christy Mathewson, Bob Feller and Spahn. "And if a pennant winner is in the cards, it's in the cards," he says. "I've been around long enough to know there are a lot of great players who never played on one." Jenkins is referring in particular to his old Cub teammates, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams.

As it was with the Cubs, Texas' main shortcoming is its bullpen. With a four-run lead after eight innings against Milwaukee, Jenkins asked Hunter to relieve him because he felt his back stiffening up. Hunter brought in Len Barker, a 22-year-old righthander who is about the closest the Rangers have to an ace shortman. Barker gave up two runs on no hits before Cleveland came in to get the potential tying run on a fly ball to the warning track in rightfield. Afterward, Hunter nodded sagaciously and said, "I'll bet Fergie finishes the next one." He could almost depend on it.