05/03/12 12:53 PM ET
Jones looks back on 89-minute win in 1977
Former Padres ace recalls classic pitchers' duel on anniversary
By Corey Brock / MLB.com
As Wheeler climbed out of the car, he happened to glance upward to see that more than just a sliver of daylight still lingered above him. This struck him as peculiar, since the game he had called between the Phillies and Padres at San Diego Stadium started promptly at 7 p.m. local time.
That's when Wheeler started to do the math. Two teams, nine innings ... in 89 minutes?
"The games were shorter back then, so you didn't really think about it," Wheeler said last week. "But this was different, because it wasn't even dark outside when we got back to the hotel. I mean, the sun might have already set, but it was still light out."
What may have seemed like nothing more than a quirky statistical anomaly 35 years ago on Friday feels more like an extraordinary feat now to Wheeler and those associated with Randy Jones' complete-game victory over Jim Kaat and Phillies on that cool May evening in Mission Valley.
"Hooking those two guys [Jones and Kaat] up in the same game was remarkable," Wheeler said. "And I think what made it more remarkable was there were five runs scored [the Padres won, 4-1] during the game."
In a time when games get longer and longer -- credit long commercial breaks, the specialization of relief pitchers and hitters seemingly spending more time out of the box than in it -- the games in which pitchers dictate the action have essentially gone the way of the dinosaur.
The proof is in the numbers.
This particular game between the Padres and Phillies in 1977 still rates as the second-fastest nine-inning game of the past 50 years, topped only by the 86-minute game between the Astros and Phillies on Aug. 24, 1974, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
"It's probably one of the more frustrating or disappointing things to see -- a pitchers duel [that takes a long time]," said Kaat, who is now an analyst for the MLB Network. "People say it's the commercial breaks between innings [that] are longer, but for me, I think it's the hitters stepping out of the box, adjusting their wristbands. ... I timed it once, and that adds 30 minutes to a game.
"In the '60s and '70s the hitters never left the box."
That certainly wouldn't have been a good idea when Jones and Kaat faced each other on May 4, 1977, in San Diego, not with the way Kaat aggravated opposing hitters with his quick-pitch delivery, and certainly not with the way Jones -- coming off winning National League Cy Young Award in 1976 -- continually peppered the strike zone with sliders and sinkers at a frenetic pace.
"I didn't lollygag around," Jones said. "I grabbed the ball and threw it. Back in the old days, you got eight pitches between innings. I would only throw six. Kaat was even worse than me. I think he threw five. We would just start the inning and we would go."
The season was barely a month old when these teams met at San Diego Stadium. Up to this point, the Padres' first home had seen more misery than marvel.
In their ninth year of existence, the club was still trying to post its first winning season in franchise history. The Padres might not have had a winning team, but fans had Jones, the homegrown kid from just up the road in Orange County who was a fifth-round Draft choice in 1972 and made it to the Major Leagues the next season. Attendance got a nice bump when he pitched at home.
The Padres had 25-year-old outfielder Dave Winfield, though no star shined brighter than Jones' at that time. He stayed after games to sign autographs. And with that big, blonde afro that he somehow squeezed into his cap, making him a dead ringer for Harpo Marx, it only made him more endearing to fans.
"People loved him," said longtime Padres broadcaster Jerry Coleman said, "I think because he never got carried away with his greatness."
Jones, now 62, certainly had an everyman quality to him and still does. He had dinner with his parents -- who drove down from Brea, Calif. -- after games that he pitched.
Jones lived in nearby Poway. There, you could find him holding court at the Pomerado Club, a country-western bar, or over at Kaminski's, a longtime Poway barbeque hangout.
As for the game on May 4, Jones recalls the crowd of 10,021 as being "pretty good for a mid-week game." The temperature was 63 degrees when Jones and Kaat started their magic, going about their work differently, though at the same quick pace.
"I had developed a quick motion in '75," Kaat said. "I didn't really have much of a windup, but [the quick pitch] was something that really frustrated hitters. As soon as I got the ball, my foot was on the rubber and I was ready to pitch. It kept hitters on the defensive."
For Jones, who was never to be confused with a flamethrower, he frustrated hitters with stuff that rated as slow, slower and slowest. He loved every minute of frustrating hitters, too.
"Most of the times, it was a sinkerball and changing speeds on that," Jones said. "I would go 72 mph, 78 and then bump it up to 85. My slider was pretty good, too. But the sinker was my pitch, and the slower I threw it, the more it sunk. It had this straight-down effect.
"I would paint that outside corner with the sinker, then hook a slider inside to show it, and then go right back away again with the sinker."
Kaat allowed four runs (three earned) on eight hits in 6 1/3 innings before manager Danny Ozark went to his bullpen for Ron Reed. Jones was devastated -- not because the pace of the game would change, but because he actually had two hits that night.
"For me, that's the biggest shocker of that game," Jones said, laughing.
Jones faced 30 batters. Here's how they fared: 18 ground-ball outs, four hits allowed, three fly-ball outs, two lineouts, one popup, one walk and one strikeout. There was no official pitch count kept, though Jones is certain he didn't come close to 100 pitches.
"I really wanted to get that first out of the inning in three pitches or less," Jones said. "It was like 'Here it is, hit it.'"
In many ways, the 89-minute game against Kaat and the Phillies was the last time Jones really felt right. In his final start of 1976 -- a season in which he threw 315 innings and 25 complete games -- Jones severed the nerve attached to his right biceps tendon.
Jones felt fine at the start of the 1977, but not long after the Phillies game, he suffered the same injury again.
"After that start, I damaged it again, and I really don't think I was ever the same again," Jones said. "Nerve damage is a crazy thing, as I found out later. It seemed like I couldn't throw a slider. I thought it was mental. But I had some tests done that determined there was so much damage done to the nerve.
"It was too bad ... but I had my moments."
Maybe none finer, though, and certainly none faster than the May evening when he tied the Phillies in knots over and over again. Consider it a slow death by sinker and by slider -- just at a quickened pace.