Former Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard dead at 71

HOUSTON — Former Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard, who led the National League twice in strikeouts and whose career was cut short by a stroke, died Wednesday, the team announced Thursday. He was 71.

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Richard died in a Houston hospital, the Houston Chronicle reported. A cause of death was not given, but a family member told the newspaper that Richard was hospitalized last month with complications from COVID-19.

“Today is a sad day for the Houston Astros as we mourn the loss of one of our franchise icons, J.R. Richard,” the team said in a statement. “J.R. will forever be remembered as an intimidating figure on the mound and as one of the greatest pitchers in club history. He stood shoulder to shoulder with club icons Larry Dierker, Joe Niekro and Nolan Ryan, to form a few of the best rotations in club history.”

An imposing right-hander who stood 6 feet, 8 inches tall, James Rodney Richard led the N.L. in strikeouts in 1978 and 1979, becoming the first Houston pitcher to top 300 Ks in a season. He was inducted into the Astros’ inaugural Hall of Fame in 2020, ESPN reported.

Richard, a native of Vienna, Louisiana, was chosen by the Astros as the second overall pick in the 1969 baseball draft. He made his major league debut two years later, striking out 15 batters in a complete-game victory against the San Francisco Giants, on Sept. 5, 1971, KHOU reported.

Richard pitched all of his 10 major league seasons in Houston. He won 20 games in 1976 and had 18 victories in 1977, 1978 and 1979. Richard set a franchise record with 313 strikeouts in 1979, a mark that stood for 40 years until Gerrit Cole fanned 326 in 2019.

He was off to a 10-4 start in 1980 when he suffered a stroke while playing catch inside the Astrodome on July 30, 1980, the Chronicle reported.

Richard never pitched in the majors again, the newspaper reported. He finished with a 107-71 career mark with a 3.15 ERA.

Jose Cruz, who was Richard’s teammate in Houston for six seasons, said the pitcher was one of his good friends.

“This is very sad to hear,” Cruz said in a statement released by the Astros. “I have great memories of J.R. He was one of the greatest Astros ever. When he was pitching, we knew that we were going to get a ‘W.’ I didn’t get too many balls hit to me in the outfield when he pitched because he was so dominating. He was a great friend and a great teammate. I send my condolences to his wife and kids.”

“He was one of the greatest pitchers we ever had and probably would have been in the Hall of Fame if his career was not cut short,” Richard’s former Astros teammate, Enos Cabell, said in a statement released by the team. “On the mound, he was devastating and intimidating. Nobody wanted to face him. Guys on the other team would say that they were sick to avoid facing him. This is very sad news. He will be missed.”