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Resurrection in Houston

Born again by the Bay, Bob Knepper has rediscovered success with the Astros

Is that a major league pitcher out there? Couldn't be. Pitchers are supposed to be cranked up and smoking. Houston's Bob Knepper pitches as if he were home relaxing with his foreign-coin collection, Mario Lanza records and historical biographies. Knepper walks to and from the mound slowly, wastes little time between pitches, and his motion is so long and languid, he looks like a flycaster. The closest Knepper comes to tightening is when, almost imperceptibly, he punches the air after giving up a base hit, which hasn't been often so far this year.

Knepper's 8-3 record, his 1.75 earned run average and five shutouts put him among the league leaders and have helped the Astros to the second-season lead in the National League West. "He's confident and relaxed," says Houston Pitching Coach Mel Wright, "and that's the key to pitching."

During Knepper's last two seasons, spent as a San Francisco Giant, he was decidedly neither of the above. After a promising 11-9 year in 1977 and a 17-11 record (with a league-leading six shutouts) in 1978, he slipped to 9-12 in 1979 and 9-16 in 1980. Knepper's problems with his Giant teammates and the Bay Area press compounded both his anxiety and his pitching difficulties. "He was falling behind hitters and they were waiting for his fastball," says San Francisco Third Baseman Darrell Evans. The Astros, who badly needed a lefthanded starter, acquired him over the winter in a trade for Infielder Enos Cabell.

Knepper likes everything about Houston, and his pitching shows it. In the climate-controlled (a constant 75°) Astrodome he is 7-1, a sharp improvement over his performance in cold, blustery Candlestick Park last season. All year he has stayed ahead on the count and been-equally effective with his fastball and curve. "I can't believe how he's changed," a longtime Giant follower said recently. "He's so animated and upbeat now. He looks five years younger!"

More than most pitchers, Knepper has to be relaxed to be effective. "If I relax and throw the ball over the plate," he says, "they'll probably pop it up." His natural fastball is a "live" one—it jumps instead of coming in straight. It averages 85 to 90 mph but seems to explode out of his easy motion. Most pitchers throw their curves, like their fastballs, overhand; Knepper throws his between three-quarters and sidearm, consistently keeps it low, and can throw it hard or soft, breaking or dropping. He's also improving that most relaxed of all pitches, the changeup.

Knepper, 27, has always relied on good control. In fact, his average of 1.95 walks per nine innings is one of the best in the National League. By keeping the ball over the plate, too, Knepper generally keeps it in the ball park. He has thrown no wild pitches, and only four home runs—to Atlanta's Bob Horner, New York's Dave Kingman, Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt and Montreal's Larry Parrish. "With the count 3 and 1, I throw my get-me-over slow curve and dare them to hit it," Knepper says. "That's the key—don't give them free base runners."

Pitching in Atlanta on Labor Day, Knepper walked three and failed to strike out a man for the first time all year. But he allowed the Braves only four hits and left the game with the score 2-2 after seven. The Astros won 3-2 on Jose Cruz's ninth-inning homer. "Tonight was an indication of the kind of season I've been having," Knepper said. "Even when I'm off I stay out of trouble. I had terrible stuff, but I kept the ball down and moved it around." Horner hit one pitch that got away—into the leftfield stands. Unruffled, Knepper drove Horner back with three inside deliveries his next time up; the fourth was over the plate, but Horner, having lost his aggressiveness, flied to center.

Only twice in 18 starts has Knepper allowed more than three runs. He has given up 106 hits, including only 17 for extra bases, in 134 innings. "Any time a pitcher's ERA stays under 2.00 for more than 100 innings, you've got to be surprised," says former Astro Pitcher Larry Dierker, now a Houston broadcaster. "To tell you the truth, I was more surprised by Bob's losing seasons than his winning ones. I can't understand what happened."

What happened was not pleasant.

"When we finished third in 1978 [after leading the National League West for much of the season], Bob put too much pressure on himself," says Giant Reliever Gary Lavelle, a close friend. Knepper agrees. "In 1977 and 1978 Herm Starrette was our pitching coach," he says. "He told me, 'If you don't have good stuff, you're still better than a lot of other guys, so just go out there and pitch.' When Herm left in 1979, I didn't concentrate on the hitter and thought about outside problems. I was throwing too hard." It all added up to a classic case of throwing instead of pitching.

Knepper's problems actually started late in the 1978 season. After one particularly galling loss he was quoted in the San Francisco Examiner. "I can't get aggressive anymore." Since Knepper had just undergone a religious experience, some people interpreted the quote to mean that born-again Christianity was sapping his pitching skills. In subsequent seasons the Bay Area press was critical of a group of Giants called "the God Squad," players who supposedly shrugged off losses as "God's will." That led to some dissension among the San Francisco players. "I've seen guys who used to be intense and are now very placid," Evans said at one point. "You wonder if guys think things are predetermined."

Knepper claims he was misunderstood. "What I think I actually said was that my faith had given me the strength to handle bad days without throwing things. That came out 'passive' in the papers. Christians aren't passive people. I don't think you'll find anywhere in the Bible that Christ gave less than 100%. You don't give any glory to God by giving 25%. I'm a firm believer in free will. It's just that if you lose, you can accept it without being crushed. We have a large group of practicing Christians on the Astros, and they've had a positive effect. Everything is not too high, not too low. That's the basic concept of the Christian life-style."

Knepper wasted no time making an impression on his new teammates. After blowing a three-run, eighth-inning lead and dropping the final game of the 1980 National League playoffs to the Phillies, the Astros won only four of their first 16 games in 1981—two of them on Knepper shutouts. The Houston pitching was spotty, the hitting worse, and the first-and second-base positions revolving doors. Cesar Cedeno was moved from center to first, then just before the strike got under way Tony Scott was acquired from St. Louis to play centerfield. On the last day of August, Phil Garner was obtained from Pittsburgh to play second base. In the second season the Astros have been born again.

The team's most pleasant surprise, other than Knepper, is righthander Nolan Ryan, who has an 8-4 record and a league-leading 1.63 ERA. "I'd forgotten how important it is to know the hitters," says Ryan, an 11-10 pitcher in 1980 after returning to the National League from California. "I'd be in trouble and wouldn't know what to throw a guy. Dr. Gene Coleman, our director of physical conditioning, studied my performance charts and discovered that the key was my performance on 2-2 counts. I'd try to be too fine and miss, and 60% of the time batters got to 3-2, they reached base."

"Batters would foul off his 3-2 fast-balls," says Coleman, "and keep doing it until they got on. He doesn't have that problem this year because he's getting his curve over on 2-2."

At 34, Ryan is still throwing a 95-mph fastball (Steve Carlton, Vida Blue and Tom Seaver are at about 90, according to Coleman). He also remains as phlegmatic as ever. Knepper, on the other hand, comes at you in a variety of ways, like his curve. He's spontaneous enough to have proposed to his wife, Terri, 10 days after their first date, meticulous enough to have mapped out a post-baseball career as an Oregon rancher, and concerned enough to speak of the problems ballplayers have finding a "middle ground" with which to relate to old friends who have been less successful.

"One of the most important things in life," he says, "is when you have a dream, to follow it through." By the time he was four, growing up in Akron, Ohio, Knepper was sure he'd be a ballplayer and later, when his family moved to tiny Calistoga, Calif., he knew he'd be a rancher. "I got a lot of support from my parents. My mother always said I would pitch for the Giants. My father took a lot of heat for letting me pass up college to play ball."

"Knepper is a cross between Tommy John and Vida Blue," Sparky Anderson, then the Cincinnati manager, said in 1978. Today, that seems an apt description both of his pitching and personality: not too high, not too low, not too fast, not too slow.