J.R. Richard
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This Day in Transaction History: Astros part ways with J.R. Richard

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With some of the recent “This Day in Transaction History” posts I’ve done, I have examined some players whose careers were sadly derailed or cut short. Dontrelle Willis and Carlos Quentin were among them — stars that shone brightly but for a short period of time due to injuries or other reasons.

Former Astros pitcher J.R. Richard is another. The right-hander was released by the Astros on this day in 1984, four years after suffering a stroke and valiantly attempting to make a comeback.

Richard broke out as a 26-year-old in 1976, winning 20 games and posting a 2.75 ERA. While those numbers were nice, he was an incomplete pitcher as he led the league in walks with 151 and only struck out 214 batters over 291 innings. Richard would gradually get better and better, culminating in a dominant 1979 season in which he went 18-13 with a 2.71 ERA and a 313/98 K/BB ratio across 292 1/3 innings. It was his second consecutive 300-strikeout season and he finished third in NL Cy Young voting. Despite Richard’s performance, the Astros narrowly lost the NL West division to the Reds.

Richard, 30 years old in 1980, got off to a blistering start. Through 16 starts, he had a 1.96 ERA with 115 strikeouts and 39 walks over 110 1/3 innings. He was looking like a Cy Young winner. Unfortunately, in a July 14 start against the Braves, Richard started experiencing vision problems and had trouble moving his pitching arm, exiting the game with one out in the fourth inning. It would be the final start of his career, which just seemed to be taking off. He suffered three separate strokes on July 30 while he was warming up in the outfield before a game.

Despite losing Richard for the season, the Astros marched on, winning the division and reaching the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The Astros narrowly lost the five-game Championship Series to the Phillies in what is still one of the most tense playoff series of all time. The Phillies won the decisive Game 5 by an 8-7 margin over 10 innings of play.

Richard would spend the next four years attempting to return to the majors to pitch, but he didn’t quite get there. He tossed 66 1/3 innings between Single-A Daytona Beach and Triple-A Tucson in 1982, but posted a disastrous 6.78 ERA which included 42 walks alongside just 41 strikeouts. The next year, he pitched for the Astros’ rookie league team. His results were better, but he was still not pitching at a major league level quite yet. The Astros re-signed Richard for the ’84 season, giving him one more go, but it didn’t work out and he was released.

Braves legend and two-time MVP Dale Murphy described Richard as “one of the toughest pitchers around.” John Royal of the Houston Press recalls Murphy being asked which pitcher was the toughest he had ever faced in his career. Royal wrote, “Without hesitation, he answered J.R. Richard.” Back then, pitchers throwing 100 MPH was quite rare. Richard did it seemingly effortlessly.

Richard ended his 10-year career having gone 107-71 with a 3.15 ERA and 1,493 strikeouts over 1,606 innings. He is one of only 15 pitchers with multiple 300-strikeout seasons. One wonders what Richard might have been able to accomplish had he been able to not only complete the 1980 season, but pitch into his mid- and late-30’s.

Sadly, Richard fell on even harder times once his playing days were officially over. He was living under a Houston overpass in the mid-1990’s, but has thankfully bounced back since then.

Blue Jays clinch 1st playoff spot since 2016, beat Yanks 4-1

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Barred from playing in their own ballpark this year because of COVID-19, the vagabond Toronto Blue Jays have found a home in the playoffs.

The slumping New York Yankees, meanwhile, look likely to play on the road in the postseason, where they’ve struggled all year.

Hyun Jin Ryu pitched seven shutout innings and the Blue Jays clinched their first postseason spot since 2016, beating the Yankees 4-1 Thursday night and further damaging New York’s chances of hosting a first-round series.

New York lost for the fourth time in five games following a 10-game winning stretch and remained two games behind the slumping White Sox for the fourth seed. Chicago lost 5-4 at Cleveland, its fifth straight defeat.

“We’ve got to get it rolling again, obviously, if we’re going to get to where we want to go,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I’m confident we can do it.

New York went 21-7 at home this season but was 11-18 on the road. Boone said he’s not concerned about that split even as a potential road playoff series looms next week.

“We’ve got to get ourselves in order and start playing really good baseball if we’re going to give ourselves a chance,” Boone said.

Toronto secured at least an AL wild-card spot and ensured its eighth trip overall to the postseason. The Blue Jays had endured three losing campaigns since their previous playoff trip, going 67-95 last season.

“I’m just so proud of my club and everything we’ve gone through all year,” second-year manager Charlie Montoyo said.

Canada’s federal government refused to allow games at Toronto’s Rogers Centre this season, citing the closed Canada-U.S. border and the travel risk associated with the pandemic. Stuck on the road to start the season, the Blue Jays eventually ended up at their Triple-A ballpark, Sahlen Field in Buffalo, but didn’t gripe about their fate.

“They never complained,” Montoyo said. “They had their mind set on getting to this moment right now.”

Blue Jays players embraced after Rafael Dolis struck out Aaron Hicks to end it, donning blue T-shirts that said “Respect Toronto.”

“This is something we want to make an every year thing,” infielder Cavan Biggio said. “For us, we’re happy, we’re excited we’re able to put ourselves in this position, but this is only the start of hopefully something special for a long time.”

The Blue Jays trail the Yankees by two games for second place in the AL East. Both teams have three games remaining. Toronto hosts Baltimore in Buffalo this weekend while the Yankees host the Marlins.

New York failed to hit a homer for the fourth straight game, matching its longest streak since June 2016. It’s the first time the Yankees have failed to homer in a four-game series since doing so at Texas in July 2013.

“I’m concerned with the way we’ve played recently,” outfielder Brett Gardner said. “Any time you’re not playing your best baseball and the postseason is right around the corner, something needs to be corrected rather quickly.”

New York loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth, but pinch-hitter Gary Sanchez flied out to deep center, where Randal Grichuk made a leaping catch at the wall.

“It’s good to see him get a really good swing off in a big spot,” Boone said of Sanchez. “Just unfortunately, that short.”

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. homered for Toronto, his eighth.

Ryu (5-2) scattered five hits, walked two and struck out four. Luke Voit and Hicks hit back-to-back singles to begin the sixth but Ryu struck out Giancarlo Stanton, got Gleyber Torres to fly out, and retired Gio Urshela on a groundball.

“He’s an ace and he did what an ace does,” Montoyo said.

The left-hander lowered his ERA from 3.00 to 2.69.

Dolis got four outs for his fifth save in six chances.

Guerrero opened the scoring with a solo homer off left-hander Jordan Montgomery (2-3) in the second.

The Blue Jays extended their lead when Biggio and Bo Bichette hit back-to-back, two-out doubles in the third.

Toronto made it 4-0 in the sixth. Grichuk chased Montgomery with a single and Guerrero singled off Adam Ottavino before rookie Alejandro Kirk hit a two-out, two-run double.

Montgomery lost for the first time in four starts. He allowed three runs and six hits in 5 1/3 innings.

The Blue Jays finished 5-5 in their 10-game regular season series against the Yankees.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: RHP Nate Pearson (elbow) was activated off the injured list and RHP Wilmer Font was designated for assignment. . RHP Jordan Romano (strained right middle finger) will throw a second bullpen session Friday.

Yankees: Aaron Judge came on as a pinch-hitter but is expected to start all three remaining regular season games, Boone said.

SHARED DUTY

Boone said he expects to use both Sanchez and Kyle Higashioka at catcher in the postseason. Higashioka has hit well while working with ace Gerrit Cole, while Sanchez has struggled with both offense and his defense down the stretch.

SEVEN UP

Ryu became the first Blue Jays starting pitcher since Aug. 22, 2019, to pitch into the seventh. It had been an MLB-record 88 games since RHP Jacob Waguespack pitched into the seventh at Dodger Stadium last year.

UP NEXT

Yankees: LHP J.A. Happ (2-2, 3.25) starts Friday as New York returns home to begin a three-game series against Miami. RHP Sandy Alcantara (3-2, 3.12) starts for the Marlins.

Blue Jays: RHP Taijuan Walker (4-3, 2.86) starts Friday in the opener of a three-game series against Baltimore. The Orioles have not named a starter.