J.R. Richard was as imposing a figure that has ever stood on a baseball mound, and one of the best strikeout pitchers in history. The Astros legend passed away at age 71, the team announced, but his legend remains.
“I don’t see how he ever loses a game. He’s in a class all by himself. I remember the first time I batted against him,” Dodgers shortstop Bill Russell said in 1980 (1). “I had no chance. I was just up there for defensive purposes. I just wanted to get out of there alive.”
Russell had good reason to feel this way, hitting .183/.222/.217 in 63 career plate appearances against Richard. But he was hardly alone among Dodgers of that era.
The reigning National League pennant winners, the Dodgers would find their way back to the World Series in 1978, a year they led the league in runs scored. But on April 11 at The Astrodome, Richard shut them out, 1-0.
“He could have beaten the 1927 Yankees tonight,” Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda said after the game. (2)
Lowest ERA vs. LA Dodgers
That was one of four different 1-0 shutouts Richard had against Los Angeles in his career. Three of those came in 1976, including a 10-inning shutout.
In his career, Richard was 15-4 with a 1.86 ERA against the Dodgers, his lowest ERA and most wins against any team. Among pitchers with at least 20 starts against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Richard’s ERA is the second-lowest, trailing only Jon Matlack.
Beginning with two of those 1-0 shutouts in 1976, Richard did not lose any of his final 16 starts against the Dodgers. He was 13-0 with a 1.47 against LA in that stretch, averaging 8.4 innings per game. That stretch included 10 complete games, four shutouts, and one 10-inning game in which Richard struck out 12.
“If he pitched against everybody the way he pitched against us, he’d never lose a game,” said Steve Yeager. (3)
Richard was an intimidating figure at 6’8, which doesn’t seem so unusual now, but as of 1980, his final year in the majors, Richard was one of only four pitchers that tall in major league history. But his blazing fastball and mastery on the mound made him seem even taller and more imposing.
“I want hitters to know that part of that plate is mine,” Richard said after a 1979 start against the Dodgers. (4) “I like to bust one up under their chin if they’re leaning in over the plate looking for the slider. That’s the way Gibson or Koufax pitched, and that’s the way I try to pitch.”
Richard threw a complete game that night, striking out 12. Despite his owning the plate, he only hit 17 batters in 1,606 major league innings, including none in 28 games against the Dodgers.
Strikeouts were his business, and business was great in the late 1970s. Joining the Astros rotation for good in 1975, he averaged 201 strikeouts in his first three full seasons, top-five in the National League in all three years. In 1978, he set a National League record for right-handers with 303 strikeouts, then struck out 313 batters in 1979.
Only four NL right-handers since Richard had 300 strikeouts in a season, Max Scherzer the last in 2018.
In 1980, American League strikeout maven Nolan Ryan signed as a free agent with the Astros, bolstering an already formidable Houston pitching staff. But it was Richard who was the All-Star that year. Richard was 10-4 with 114 strikeouts at the break, his 1.9577 ERA a hair above Dodgers right-hander Jerry Reuss (1.9589) for the league lead.
Richard was chosen to start the 1980 All-Star Game, to date the last midsummer classic at Dodger Stadium. He did not disappoint.
Richard worked around a single and two walks to pitch two scoreless innings in that All-Star Game. He struck out three, including Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Carlton Fisk.
Sadly, Richard would make one more major league start. He suffered a stroke later that July, and though he tried to come back over the next four seasons he would never pitch in the majors again.
But he left quite an impact on the game, and not just against the Dodgers. Richard pitched in parts of 10 major league seasons, with a 3.15 ERA and 1,493 strikeouts in 1,606 innings. He led the league in ERA once, in strikeouts twice, finished in the top four in Cy Young Award voting twice, and was an All-Star.
One who left an indelible mark on the game.
“When a batter steps into the box against J.R., the comments don’t vary much. Usually, they just look out there and say, ‘Well, no chance this time,’” said Astros catcher Alan Ashby. (5). “And afterwards you just see the guys turn around slowly with this look of despair on their face, kind of an expression of helplessness. Against J.R., you see it all the time.”
- “Dodgers dodge Richard,” by Bob Padecky. The Sacramento Bee, April 23, 1980.
- “J.R. Richard ... could beat ‘27 Yanks.” The Associated Press, April 17, 1978.
- “J.R. a big pain to Dodgers,” by Hal Lundgren. The San Bernardino County Sun. July 10, 1980.
- “Richard keeps on mastering Dodgers,” by David Leon Moore. The San Bernardino County Sun. August 9, 1979.
- “J.R. Richard: Best of the best,” by Brad Buchholz, Cox News Service. The San Bernardino County Sun. July 10, 1980.