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Righetti roped career-making strikeout gem
Tulsa lefty broke Texas League record by fanning 21 over nine innings
03/23/2015 10:00 AM ET
In Dave Righetti's career, his 21-strikeout game in 1978 is rivaled only by his no-hitter in 1983. (Ray Stubblebine/AP)

Few have spread the gospel of pitching quite like Dave Righetti.

On the East Coast, he thrived as both a starter and reliever for the Yankees, winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1981, throwing a no-hitter in '83 and representing New York in consecutive All-Star Games in 1986-87 -- two seasons that ended with "Rags" being named the AL Rolaids Relief Man of the Year.

Righetti continues to make an impact, now as the man in charge of Giants hurlers out west. Having started in 2000, he is the longest-tenured pitching coach in the Major Leagues, and for good reason. Anchored by one of the game's best staffs, San Francisco has won three of the past five World Series.

But before Righetti could leave his mark in the big leagues, he went through the Texas League. And while starting for the Rangers' Double-A affiliate in Tulsa in 1978, the lefty turned in one of the most astonishing pitching performances in baseball history.

On July 16, the then-19-year-old struck out 21 Midland batters over nine innings, establishing a Texas League record that stands to this day. The feat surpassed San Antonio right-hander Willie Mitchell's circuit record of 20 whiffs in nine innings from Aug. 21, 1909, and trails only the 22 punchouts of Missions righty Bob Turley, who labored over 16 innings to fan that many on Aug. 11, 1951.

Righetti didn't know it at the time, but his otherworldly outing did more than give him a permanent place in Minor League lore. It led directly to his acquisition by the Yankees, effectively setting him up for the big league successes that followed.

* * *

One of the first things Righetti recalled about that record-setting day was the heat. A 98-degree afternoon could make any player feel sluggish or disinterested, but not the Drillers starter on this day.

"I was a skinny kid from California," Righetti said. "Of course, I grew up in the sun, but the Texas League had a different kind of heat to it. ... I don't know why, but I adapted well into that, pitching that kind of game in the summer."

After serving up a first-inning double to Joe Hernandez, the southpaw settled into a groove, ending that frame with a strikeout and fanning each of the next six batters over the second and third innings for seven in a row. He didn't allow another hit until the seventh, at which point Tulsa held a 2-0 lead.

That hit, a double to right field by Eric Grady, preceded a two-out RBI single from Kevin Drury that halved the deficit. It never should have happened in the first place.

"I didn't have my sunglasses," Drillers right fielder Dave Rivera told the Tulsa World afterward. "I'd have caught [Grady's] ball if I'd had my glasses."

With 15 K's after seven frames, Righetti reached 21 by again punching out the side in the eighth and ninth. The latter frame, however, included another RBI single from Drury, who drove in Steve Macko. Macko, the only Midland starter to avoid striking out against Righetti, had doubled.

"The kid has class," Tulsa's Rick Lisi told the Sporting News. "When [Righetti] left the game, he apologized for giving up the tying run. Can you imagine that?"

The game went to the 10th inning, but Righetti did not. With Steve Bianchi on in relief, the Cubs plated a pair on Kurt Seibert's single to right. Despite threatening in the bottom of the inning, the Drillers did not score and lost the game, 4-2. Righetti threw 140 pitches but didn't factor in the decision.

His final line -- nine innings pitched, five hits, two earned runs, one walk and 21 strikeouts.

Righetti broke Jim Bibby's Tulsa record of 16 K's over nine innings (1972) as well as Bill Wakefield's club mark of 17 strikeouts, a performance of more than nine innings (1962).

Twenty-one punchouts were a Double-A record, Bobby Bragan, the president of the National Association of Baseball, was quoted as saying at the time. The Southern League mark is 18, reached by Charlotte righty Mike Boddicker in nine innings on June 7, 1979. An Eastern League representative said the circuit does not have such a record in its files.

"I wasn't a real hard thrower," Righetti said. "I probably threw 90-92 [mph], I'd guess, at that point. But the Double-A level, I guess being left-handed with the ball running around, and I could get a breaking ball over fairly well, so maybe I was getting those strikeouts because of that."

In a season that began late due to groin discomfort and ended early due to biceps tendinitis, Righetti went 5-5 with a 3.16 ERA in 13 starts, striking out 127 and walking 49 over 91 innings. On average, he recorded 12.6 whiffs per nine innings and 2.59 K's for every walk.

Though Righetti rarely had a problem retiring hitters by himself, the swing-and-miss stuff he demonstrated that July 16 was something else.

"That gave me a lot of confidence, knowing that I could handle hot days, no matter where we pitched," he said. "A couple years later, I ended up throwing my no-hitter on a very hot day in July. So I took a lot of confidence out of that game in Tulsa that day. You don't forget those things. It was nice being able to know that I wouldn't wilt in the sun, so to speak."

* * *

Tulsa finished the 1978 season at 57-78 -- the third-worst record in the Texas League -- and attendance at Driller Park reflected the team's play. There were reportedly only 226 people present to see Righetti rack up his 21 strikeouts.

One of the spectators was Dick Such, a roving instructor for the Rangers. "It was the greatest game I've ever seen," he later told the Sporting News.

Perhaps more importantly, Yankees scout Jerry Walker also watched Righetti work his magic. When Texas and New York engaged in trade talks that offseason, Walker recommended to George Steinbrenner that he ask for Righetti to be included in what became an enormous deal.

"He had my name in his pocket, supposedly," the pitcher said.

On Nov. 10, 1978, the Rangers traded Righetti along with Greg Jemison, Juan Beniquez, Mike Griffin and Paul Mirabella to the Yankees for Sparky Lyle, Mike Heath, Larry McCall, Dave Rajsich, Domingo Ramos and cash considerations. Righetti was one of several young players the Rangers dealt around that time, and it didn't exactly thrill him.

"Being traded, that was a disappointment," he said. "I was kind of a proud Texas Ranger farmhand. I thought there was a shot to go to Triple-A the next year. ... And then when I went to the Yankees, it was like, 'Oh, my God, I'll never see the big leagues.' They kept buying older pitchers. They had just gone to three out of four World Series, so it was going to be a lot tougher to get up there."

Righetti mostly split 1979 between Double-A West Haven and Triple-A Columbus, going 7-5 with a 2.31 ERA, 122 strikeouts and 64 walks over 109 innings. His year ended, however, with three starts for New York, the first of which came on Sept. 16 against Detroit at Yankee Stadium.

The highlight of his Major League playing career took place four seasons later, on July 4, 1983. On Steinbrenner's 53rd birthday, Righetti no-hit the Boston Red Sox in a 4-0 win at home. He whiffed nine and walked four during the seventh no-hitter in Yankees history.

Between that masterpiece and his jewel against the Midland Cubs, Righetti has a pair of singular performances on his resume. Not that they have a whole lot in common.

"I think they were different because I wasn't throwing quite as hard, and I was probably pitching a little bit more [in the Texas League start]," Righetti said. "The no-hitter, I threw a ton of fastballs that day, and probably only a couple off-speed pitches, other than the sliders. At that point [with Tulsa], I was still in the Minor Leagues, using my curveball and changeup a lot and using two-seam fastballs a lot more than four-seam. So that would definitely be a difference."

The whole reason Righetti wound up in New York is because of what he accomplished in Tulsa on that sweaty afternoon in 1978. He may not have embraced leaving the Texas farm system at the time of trade, but it's likely that was a blessing in disguise.

"Once the trade happened," Righetti said, "maybe it just made me better and I had to really put my nose to the grindstone to make it in New York. So it's not the worst thing that ever happened."

* * *

In the Minor Leagues, it seems as though someone somewhere is doing something extraordinary every day. Every year, there will be no-hitters and cycles, batters collecting a week's worth of RBIs in one night, pitchers doubling their career high of strikeouts out of the blue and more triple plays than seems allowable by nature.

But what Righetti accomplished for Tulsa on July 16, 1978, doesn't happen every day. In fact, with low pitch counts and the constant fear of a major injury, his achievement may never be matched. And without it, he might never have gone on to a big league career that included an 82-79 record, 252 saves and a 3.46 ERA.

None of that, though, was evident in the days and months that followed. Back then, all Righetti thought was that, if he could strike out 21 in one game, he ought to be blowing batters away with more regularity than anyone else around.

"The hard thing was, after that, living up to it and trying to strike people out," Righetti said. "That was the hardest part -- dealing with that, having to calm that down and just make sure I [continued] being able to pitch and just get better.

"But after doing something like that, it opened some eyes. That's for sure."

Mark Emery is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @Mark_Emery. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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