Astro's opponents get ready to blink

An easy rapport seems to have developed already among Nolan Ryan, who came to Houston in the free agent draft, and the rest of the Astros' pitching staff -- including J. R. Richard.

That's bad news for National League hitters. They probably were hoping some sort of feud would develop between Richard, the National League's strikeout leader, and Ryan, the former American League strikeout champion.

A well adjusted duo of Richard and Ryan promises to be formidable for several reasons.

If Ryan returns to the form that saw him strike out 300 hitters in five of the last eight years, and Richard continues to improve on his performance of 303 strikeouts in 1978 and 313 in 1979, the two could fan nearly 700 hitters. Some entire staffs don't do that well in a season.

Both men are also winners. Richard won 20 games in 1976 and 18 in each of the next three years. Ryan, meanwhile averaged 17 wins a season in his eight years with the California Angels, winning 21 and 22 games in 1973 and 1974. There is also the matter of Ryan's four no-hitters.

Prior to spring training, Ryan worked out in the Astrodome along with several other regulars, forming the sort of tentative friendships new players always form as they begin the gradual process of becoming a true member of the team.

When Ryan left California for a reported $4 million, multi-year contract here , he brought with him something new to the Astros -- media attention.

On the surface, it would seem this might be more than the accomplished but unrecognized Houston staff could bear, especially Richard, who has been the most consistent pitcher in the National League for the last four years. He is an outspoken critic of the inattention accorded his feats, particularly his record-setting performance in 1978 when he became the first right-hander in National League history to strike out 300 hitters.

But when asked about Ryan, Richard starts talking about something else. "It's great to have that kind of guy on the ballclub," he says. "He's that much more icing on the cake. This year I'm not gonna be satisfied with anything less than the World Series."

The big right-hander from Ruston, Louisiana, has reconciled himself to a life of pitching great baseball in relative obscurity. Of course, a multi-year contract at more than $800,000 per year helps, but there is a new maturity in Richard.

"I've come to the conclusion that I shouldn't expect too much out of baseball ," says Richard. "So I've decided to do the job I get paid for and let it go at that. It's not easy to perform like I have and still not get the endorsements and recognition, but I'm not gonna press the issue and spend a lot of time looking back."

As for Ryan, when asked how he reacts to being on the same team with another big star hurler, he replied: "I don't put a lot of value on trying to be the No. 1 pitcher on the staff. I want to win. It doesn't matter how we do it."

No matter what either man says for public consumption, however, the competitive juices are flowing. For the first time in several years, Ryan threw regularly before spring training. When asked why he didn't do this in past years, Ryan blamed the weather.

That's a strange excuse when you consider that Ryan, who makes his home in Alvin just south of Houston, was given the keys to the city on "Nolan Ryan Day" several years ago and probably could have had the private use of any facility in the city, if he only had asked.

Richard, on the other hand, has always been a hard worker over the winter. This year he went a step further. "I ran more and lifted a few different weights than I lifted in the past," he said.

In past years, Richard has been a slow starter, finishing strong in the second half because of his superior strength and conditioning. The presence of Ryan may be just the motivation J. R. needs to get off to a quick start.

That could give the Astros a decided edge. On paper the team has the strongest staff in the league. Ryan and Richard are complemented by 20-game winner Joe Niekro and no- hitter pitcher Ken Forsch. Lefty Joe Sambito comes out of the bullpen.

Catcher Alan Ashby is the happy coordinator of all this talent.

"This could be the most renowned staff in baseball," says Ashby. "I get a different feeling than I've ever had prior to any other season when I think about this staff. I can't even begin to fathom the ability of these guys."

Of course, Ryan and Richard have to be considered the bulwarks. Their performance will be the key to this season for Houston. If the two right-handers are on, the Astros -- who didn't miss by much in the NL West race last year -- could be more than spectators in October.

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