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Dodger Thoughts: 20 Years Ago, The Epitome of Joy

Twenty years ago tonight came one of the most unlikely fantastic experiences ever at Dodger Stadium.

Headed toward their worst season in 84 years, a season in which they would lose 99 games, the Dodgers were confronting one of the consequences of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Cancelations of games following the April 29 verdict in the Rodney King case had forced the team to play 10 games in six days, starting with a doubleheader July 3 against the Phillies. With a 32-42 record and 17 losses in their past 25 games, the franchise had already fallen into last place in the National League West, 12 games behind the squad that is currently visiting Los Angeles, Cincinnati.

In other words, you think things are bad with this year’s Dodgers right now – well, they had nothing on the Dodgers of ’92.

To fortify their pitching staff against the workload ahead, the Dodgers went down into the minors and fished out Pedro Astacio, a 23-year-old who had gone 4-11 with a 4.78 ERA and 4.9 strikeouts per nine innings in Double-A San Antonio the year before, and who would post a 5.47 ERA with 6.0 strikeouts per nine innings as a member of Triple-A Albuquerque in ’92. Astacio would make his major league debut in the second game of the July 3 doubleheader against Philadelphia.

A thin (6-foot-2, 174 pounds) hurler with a jangly right arm, Astacio could hardly have seemed more green as he took the mound. The Dodgers manufactured two runs for him in the first two innings, twice getting the leadoff man to second base and eventually scoring each in turn on a groundout and sacrifice fly.

For his part, Astacio walked the first man he faced, Stan Javier, on his first four pitches, and Javier stole second on Astacio’s fifth.  But Astacio came back to strike out the next two batters, and it wouldn’t be until the third inning that he allowed a hit. He got out of that mild bit of trouble, ended the fourth with a double play and a strikeout and closed out the fifth by striking out two batters with a runner on second.

By this time, it became rather apparent that the Dodgers weren’t going to give Astacio much more of a cushion on offense – going down in order in the third and fourth and stranding two runners in the fifth – and in fact, they seemed to be doing much to undermine him. In the sixth, the Phillies loaded the bases with two out on a single, a Dave Anderson error and a walk, but Astacio got future Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. to fly out. In the next inning, the Dodgers doubled down by making two errors, but another double play and Astacio’s ninth strikeout prevented further carnage.

The Dodgers turned their fourth double play in the eighth inning, setting the stage for the final three outs.

Astacio struck out John Kruk for his 10th strikeout of the game, the most by pitcher making his debut in Los Angeles history. Darren Daulton flied to center field for the second out.

It was getting late, and some of a crowd that had seen more than five hours of baseball that day was thinning out. Astacio bore down to throw his 144th pitch of the game, a number that has not been matched since by any Dodger pitcher, much less a rookie, much, much less a rookie in his first major-league game. Those who remained in the stands, who had found so little to cheer about in 1992, were on their feet.

Mariano Duncan lofted a fly ball to medium right field, and as the ball glided through the air toward Mitch Webster to complete the 2-0 shutout, Astacio began leaping up and down on the pitcher’s mound, with a smile I imagine you could see from a thousand yards away, as if he were winning the seventh game of the World Series. Bouncing on a trampoline, Astacio watched like the rest of us as the ball fell into Webster’s glove for the final out, delivering us from the gloom, reminding us how much joy there was to be found in desolate circumstances.

Pedro Astacio, pure baseball pleasure. It’s a moment that has remained with me ever since, and I thank him for it.

For more from Jon Weisman, visit Dodger Thoughts and follow @dodgerthoughts on Twitter.