Phil Niekro represents a complex case. For example, the Atlanta pitcher’s best pitch is simply too good. Yet many people, including his manager, are telling him that his other stuff is good enough to win for him if mixed properly with his “out” pitch, which, of course, is the knuckleball.
By being too good, Niekro’s knuckler has had catcher Bob Uecker moaning and groaning. It also has had a few opposing batters talking…to themselves. Uecker began to grumble a bit after a game in Pittsburgh, when he got his just about every place but on his glove. “When he throws that knuckler hard, I just can’t catch it,” admitted Uecker. “I don’t think anybody can.” The Braves’ other catcher, Joe Torre, admits he has met a few fans by catching Niekro…by chasing the ball back to the grandstand.
Still, despite the unpredictability of his best pitch, Niekro is undefeated in the month of September with three complete games in three starts. While is catchers and opposing hitters moan about Niekro’s knucklers, the writers, who are a safe distance from the dancing pitch, are wondering if Niekro could have logged 20 victories had he been a starter all season. Niekro mulled that one over. Finally, he said, “I think I could have, if I had pitched all season the way I have performed in recent games.”
Does he prefer starting now, considering his success? “It really doesn’t matter to me,” he said, smiling. “I just want to get the ball. I like to pitch, even if it’s only in batting practice.”