Even as good as Nolan Ryan is, no longer a gunslinger looking to score big but a pitcher who knows how to win, the question won't go away.

The next time he pitches, whether in the last game of this miniplayoff or the first of the midiplayoff leading to the maxiplayoffs once known as the World Series, someone will ask: Can he win the big one?

Recurring criticisms of Ryan deal with (1) his perceived failings in important games and (2) his barely-.500 record across 14 seasons of striking out everyone brave enough to face the 100 mile per hour fast ball that carried him from the outback of Texas to a $1 million salary with the Astros.

"Is it true," someone said to Ryan, "that after the fifth no-hitter, the first question was, 'What's it feel like to be a .500 pitcher?' "

"Something to that effect," Ryan said kindly, for at 34 he is a kindly fellow who dismisses the knocks against him with a smile.

"Didn't that bother you," he was asked, "to set an all-time major league record with a fifth no-hitter, in a quote big game unquote against the Dodgers, in your best season of all -- and still the first question was why you're a .500 pitcher?"

"Doesn't bother me at all," Ryan said. He sold the line with a soft drawl and an easy tilt of his head that said the world may be too much with a Reggie Jackson, but it won't agitate this gentle rancher from Alvin, Tex.

"You can make whatever you want to out of statistics," Ryan said. "People look at my record (189-174) and that's what I am, a few games over .500. But I don't worry about things I have no control over."

As the Dodgers loved having Fernando Valenzuela pitching tonight, the Astros want Nolan Ryan when it means the most.

In every quote big game unquote of late, Ryan did work beyond compare. Not only did he beat playoff rival Cincinnati, he threw the no-hitter against Los Angeles and then, in the playoff opener, let up on the Dodgers and allowed them two hits.

This is a man who can't win when it matters?

"My job," he said without bravado, "is to shut out the opposition. If I do that, we stand a good chance to win."

Well, you can't lose that way, for sure, but for 12 years Nolan Ryan worked knowing a shutout might be good for only a tie. The Mets from '68 to '71 were good only in the miracle '69 season when Ryan primarily was a reliefer. He was 29-37 there. From '72 to '79 with the incompetent Angels, Ryan was 138-121.

We have a statistic for anyone who believes Ryan is "nothing but a .500 pitcher."

In eight years with California, Ryan's winning percentage was .533, while his team's percentage was .481. He was 52 points better than the guys around him. Of the league's first-class pitchers, only Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry and Luis Tiant were so much better than their teams. Catfish Hunter, to name a Hall of Fame-ability pitcher, didn't match Ryan.

"Yup," Ryan said.

With an 11-5 record this truncated season, Ryan lost fewer than 10 games for the first time since 1970. For the first time since he was 22-16 eight years ago, Ryan finished more than three games over .500. His earned run average, 1.69, is his best ever.

"I'm a better pitcher now because I pitch differently," Ryan said. "My control is better and I'm capable of getting both my fast ball and my breaking ball over. With the Angels, sometimes I'd just have to can the curve ball because all it did was get me in trouble. And when you're a one-pitch pitcher, it makes a difference."

Control of the curve came with time, Ryan said, and in the playoff two-hitter he threw the curve for a strike half the time. Of 104 pitches, 67 were fast balls, 37 curves.

"They still look for the fast ball, because my percentage of pitches hasn't changed. I still throw 60-70 percent fast balls. But it's a thought that enters their minds now, that I am getting the breaking ball over."

The Astros' pitching charts helped Ryan make a strategical change that his gunslinger's ego might have resisted a decade ago.

"It was always a personal challenge to strike out people like Reggie Jackson and the big hitters in the National League, like Aaron, Stargell, McCovey and Mays. I'd been given this reputation before I even got here, about how good an arm I had, and it was like I had to prove to everybody how good of an arm I had."

"Like a gunslinger," he was asked, "you went looking for somebody to shoot down?"

"Yup. But now, it's different. I was losing too many guys who got to three and two. Sixty percent reached base, either on a walk or hit. The answer was to quit getting to three and two.

"So I changed my attitude about my two-and-two pitches. I tried not to be as fine. And I don't throw as many breaking balls on two and two."

Bye-bye, gunslinger. Hello, pitcher.

"Remember, I came out of a high school in Texas, a raw talent learning in the major leagues with the Mets. Tom Seaver, in contrast, came out of Southern Cal, practically a pro operation. What I've done now, in 14 years, isn't change my style of pitching. I've refined it.

"So I feel when I get the rap 'just a .500 pitcher,' if you look at the statistics alone, well, I am a .500 pitcher. But I think I deserve more consideration than that."

He'll get it the day they put him in the Hall of Fame.