Los Angeles — Considering the 23 wins Steve Carlton has already contributed to Philadelphia this season, pitcher Jerry Reuss of the Los Angeles Dodgers probably will have to settle for strong runner-up honors in the National League's Cy Young Award voting.
But for a guy who started the season in the bullpen, this has to be Reuss's most rewarding major league season.Jerry already has a no-hitter; a lower earned-run average than Carlton; and still a chance for 20 or more victories with a 17-5 record at this writing.
Only a year ago the big left-hander struggled to a 7-14 record, and he hadn't won as many as 10 games since 1977. With Los Angeles adding free agent Dave Goltz to what was already considered a solid staff, about all Jerry could look forward to was occasional work behind Terry Forster and Don Stanhouse in the bullpen.
Reuss's "Great Escape" began early when Forster was slow coming off arm surgery and Stanhouse went on the disabled list with shoulder problems. Jerry showed he could still pitch with three wins, three saves, and an impressive 1.42 earned run average in eight relief appearances.
Then Rick Sutcliffe, last season's NL Rookie of the Year, pitched so poorly that LA had to take him out of its starting rotation, and when Goltz suddenly became ill, Reuss got his first start on May 16.
He beat the Pirates; didn't lose a game in June; and on the 27th of that month pitched a no-hitter against the Giants that would have been a perfect game except for a first inning throwing error by shortstop Bill Russell. Jerry was also the winning pitcher in the All-Star game.
Often pitchers who improve so dramatically either claim no valid explanation or attribute their success to something as mundane as getting regular work.
But the 6 ft. 5 in. Reuss has several reasons for his new- found success -- chief among them an almost overnight transformation from a high ball pitcher to one who throws fastballs that sink.
By studying the low ball style of pitchers like Carlton and Randy Jones and working with ex-Dodger great Sandy Koufax in spring training, Jerry has come up with a pitch that opposing batters keep pounding into the ground.
"For eight years in this league I was a high ball pitcher who relied mostly on speed and power to get the batter out," Reuss explained. "My mechanics were different then, partly because I was younger, but mostly because I felt that power was more important than location.
"However since I learned to get more rotation on my fast ball, I've become less of a power pitcher and more of a control pitcher," he continued. "Maybe I'm not striking out as many hitters as I used to, but I'm probably getting more batters to hit into double plays."
Jerry now throws his curve and fastball with the same motion, which may not sound that important, but which can fool a hitter badly. And his changeup this year is probably as good as any in the league.
Reuss also worked regularly during the winter and in spring training on Nautilus equipment to strengthen some back muscles that had been giving him trouble. He still runs 30-45 minutes every other day in the outfield and has replaced what was once an exaggerated delivery with one almost as smooth as a pro golf swing.
"I'm also concentrating more on the hitter than I used to," Jerry said. "I go out there now feeling like I can always win, knowing I can get the ball over the plate, and putting everything out of my mind except what's happening at the moment."
Reuss has a serious side, as shown by his election as LA's player representative, but he is also running neck and neck with Jay Johnstone, another free spirit, as the team's most active prankster.
Together they have made a special target of Manager Tommy Lasorda, once even ducking under camera range to tie Lasorda's shoelaces together while he was being interviewed on television.
While this isn't recommended for rookies, any pitcher who can win seven road games with a team that has often played like turkeys away from Dodger Stadium need have no worries.