Thursday, July 01, 1999

Villone: From scrap heap to top of heap

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ron Villone rests in the dugout after his eight-inning one-hitter Wednesday night.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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        Ron Villone does not compute. He is the retread who suddenly shows up as a steel-belted radial. He is the castoff who washes ashore on Fantasy Island. He is the journeyman lefty who finally gets things right.

        The Reds' newest ace should not be sharing in shutouts and flirting with no-hitters. He should be selling insurance or tending bar. Nothing in his resume indicates anything approaching the kind of work he has done in the last week.

        Yet the box scores would suggest Sandy Koufax: Seven innings of one-hit ball followed by eight innings of one-hit ball. Five years between professional starts, three months since being released, this 29-year-old reclamation project has come off the scrap heap and performed like a star.

        “If you ask me how he's going to pitch the next time, I don't know,” Reds pitching coach Don Gullett said Wednesday night. “We want him to progress. But I can't ask him to progress much from tonight.”

Villone outdueled Randy Johnson.
(AP photo)
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Big Unit? Big deal
        This Reds' season stopped making sense a long time ago, but Wednesday night approached lunacy. Arizona's Randy Johnson struck out 17 hitters and was so dominant he had Reds hitters laughing at themselves. Yet the Big Unit was no match for the Stout Southpaw. Ron Villone, 237 pounds including goatee, pitched 5 1/3 no-hit innings, held the Diamondbacks to one single over eight innings and ultimately prevailed 2-0. The Reds' winning streak stands at nine games.

        Afterward, Randy Johnson had no comment. Ron Villone has been leaving a lot of people speechless lately.

        “So far it's a high point,” he said. “If it's the highest, I don't know. I don't want to look at it as the high point because then I'll reflect too much and worry about what I've done. I have to worry about what I'm going to do in five more days.”

        If Villone were to look back on his baseball career, he would be forced to deal with disappointment and discouragement. He is a left-handed pitcher with a superior fastball in a sport desperate for either commodity, yet three teams had traded him before Cleveland cut him loose this spring.

        He was one of those wild arms no one has been able to harness, capable of registering 90 miles an hour on the radar guns, prone to long lapses of control. Villone has averaged slightly more than two walks every three innings throughout his professional career, a pattern sure to exasperate the most patient managers. Even last Thursday, while holding Houston to one single for seven innings, Villone frustrated his coaches with 11 three-ball counts.

        Wednesday, however, he was as scalpel-sharp with his whole repertoire. Asked which of Villone's pitches had worked best, rookie catcher Jason LaRue replied: “Everything. There wasn't one single pitch. He'd get behind in the count and was able to throw everything for a strike. It's the best control he's had all year while I've caught him.”

Another Gullett special
        Gullett, who is to salvage operations what Titanic was to shipwrecks, encouraged Villone to land less stiffly on his front leg on the theory that this would help him bring the ball down in the strike zone. Equally important, said manager Jack McKeon, Gullett has helped shape Villone's thinking about situational pitching.

        He pitched so well in relief — five scoreless outings in May — that McKeon and Gullett saw fit to make him a starter. In five starts, he has gone from a shot in the dark to a bull's eye.

        “Nothing's better than pitching well,” Villone said. “Dinner's going to taste a lot better. ... I heard there were only 30,000 (in the stands), but at the end it sounded like 50,000.”

        Inside, Ron Villone admitted, he was jumping up and down. On the surface, he was working hard to stay cool. But he couldn't explain how a guy with good stuff could bounce around so much when pitching is supposed to be scarce.

        “Maybe it's out there,” he said, “and you've just got to find it.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at