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.

Rays beat Mets 8-5, clinch 1st AL East title in 10 years

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NEW YORK — Confetti instead of champagne. Silly string instead of beer.

The Tampa Bay Rays, long accustomed to doing more with less, figured out a way to maximize the division-clinching celebration they were allowed to enjoy during a 2020 season shortened by the coronavirus.

Randy Arozarena homered twice and the Rays clinched their first AL East title in 10 years Wednesday night with an 8-5 victory over the New York Mets.

“I’m completely dry right now, which I’m not a huge fan of,” center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Rays player, said with a grin. “But you have to adapt to what we’re asked of.”

With teams instructed to celebrate in a muted and socially distant style, the Rays went old school – or maybe elementary school – with their clinching party.

The team filed slowly onto the field after Nick Anderson fanned Andres Gimenez for the final out. A couple of players shot off canisters filled with confetti that eventually dotted the grass and dirt at Citi Field. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged before the Rays doused one another with silly string and lit some cigars in the visiting clubhouse.

Later, hooting and hollering could be heard from the visitors’ dugout.

“We’re little kids trapped in grown men’s bodies,” Kiermaier said.

Joey Wendle and Brandon Lowe also went deep for the Rays to back Tyler Glasnow‘s six solid innings. Tampa Bay will be home at quirky Tropicana Field for a best-of-three first-round playoff series beginning next Tuesday.

It is the third division crown for the thrifty Rays, whose payroll this season is just over $28 million – more than only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles. Tampa Bay, which began play in 1998, also won the AL East, home of two big-spending powers in the Yankees and Red Sox, in 2008 and 2010.

“It feels great to win the division, no matter what division you’re in,” Kiermaier said. “But especially the American League East – it’s just a different animal.”

After missing a chance to clinch Tuesday, the Rays went into Wednesday again needing just a win or a Yankees loss against Toronto to lock up the division championship.

The Rays (37-20) broke a 2-all tie in the sixth on Arozarena’s two-run homer off Michael Wacha and pulled away, taking care of business themselves while New York was routed 14-1 by the Blue Jays.

“At the end of the day, a clinch is a clinch,” said Wendle, who homered in the second. “But to do it on a win – everybody’s kind of riding the high of winning the game along with the division. We didn’t want to see it come down to them losing a game.”

Tampa Bay also is closing in on wrapping up the top record in the AL and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

Lowe, who had an RBI fielder’s choice in the third, hit a two-run homer in the eighth. Willy Adames added an RBI single later in the inning and Arozarena homered again in the ninth.

The insurance came in handy for the Rays when the Mets scored three times off Oliver Drake in the ninth – via an RBI groundout by Robinson Cano and a two-run homer by Todd Frazier – before Anderson closed the door.

“I think we had the game pretty much in control (and) certainly recognized what was going on in Buffalo, but I don’t know if you can ever prepare for a moment like that – it’s pretty special,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

Glasnow (5-1) allowed two runs on three hits and one walk with eight strikeouts.

Gimenez and Dominic Smith homered off Glasnow in the final home game of the season for the Mets, whose long-shot playoff hopes were further damaged with the loss. New York began the day 2 1/2 games out of an NL wild-card spot.

“We still have a shot with the four games left and we’re competing,” manager Luis Rojas said. “We’ve just got to do what we do – just keep fighting like we did in the ninth.”

Wacha allowed four runs on six hits and struck out four in six innings.

STABLE SHIRT

Rays pitcher Charlie Morton sported a T-shirt picturing a stable of horses as he spoke with reporters during a pregame Zoom call. Morton did little to discourage the notion the shirt was inspired by Cash’s viral rant earlier this month, when he declared the Rays have “a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph” after Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman threw near Mike Brousseau’s head in the ninth inning Sept. 4.

“The stable shirt?” Morton said. “It was in my locker last week and I like horses.”

With a grin obviously growing even behind his Rays mask, Morton said he rode horses as a kid.

“So I was ecstatic to see this shirt in my locker and I wore it,” he said.

As for the fireballers on the Rays’ pitching staff?

“We’ve got some guys that throw really hard,” Morton said.

ANOTHER LOSING SEASON

The loss guaranteed the Mets (25-31) will finish with a sub-.500 record for the ninth time in the last 12 seasons – a total matched or exceeded only by the Chicago White Sox (nine), Miami Marlins (10) and San Diego Padres (10). The White Sox and Padres have already clinched playoff spots and a winning record, while the Marlins are in second place in the NL East.

New York made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons in 2015 and 2016 and went 86-76 last year.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Rays: LHP Jose Alvarado (shoulder, lat) is scheduled to throw batting practice to 3B Yandy Diaz (hamstring) and 1B Ji-Man Choi (hamstring) at Tropicana Field on Thursday. Cash said all three players are progressing and he hopes they are available for the playoffs. . Brousseau (oblique) missed a fourth consecutive game. Cash said he would have been available off the bench if needed

Mets: RF Michael Conforto (hamstring) returned to the lineup as the designated hitter after missing two games and went 0 for 4. . The Mets activated RHP Dellin Betances (lat), who last pitched Aug. 29, and optioned RHP Corey Oswalt to the alternate site.

UP NEXT

Rays: After a day off Thursday, Morton (2-2, 4.64 ERA) is scheduled to get his postseason tuneup in the opener of a series against the Phillies on Friday.

Mets: Rookie LHP David Peterson (5-2, 3.80 ERA) opens a four-game road series against the Nationals. Peterson struck out a career-high 10 against the Braves last Saturday.