Just after 7 o'clock tonight, as a gentle Atlantic Ocean breeze cut through the stifling 95-degree heat, the capacity crowd of 4,719 in small City Island Park rose spontaneously and showered the field with thunderous applause and cheers.

The object of the ovation was James Rodney Richard, who jogged quietly to the pitcher's mound, doffed his baseball cap shyly and officially resumed his extraordinary saga of individual perseverance.

Two years after being cut down by a near-fatal stroke, J.R. Richard returned to baseball wearing the orange sunrise stripes of the Class A Daytona Beach Astros.

It was a far cry from 1980, when the imposing 6-foot-8, 237-pound right-hander was the ace of the Houston Astros rotation and one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball. But Richard took a small step toward regaining his major league status tonight by pitching four complete innings with the Houston farm club.

He wasn't overpowering, but neither was he an embarrassment. Richard weathered a rocky first inning against the St. Petersburg Cardinals. He threw 27 pitches, yielding two earned runs and three hits, including one through the infield by the leadoff hitter. But the 32-year-old Texan settled down in the next three innings, holding St. Petersburg scoreless and leaving the game to another enthusiastic ovation.

In all, he threw 64 pitches (including 27 balls and 25 strikes), gave up five hits, walked two batters and struck out one. The Astros eventually lost the game, 8-4, but Richard was not the pitcher of record.

During his stint on the mound, Richard twice was slow to cover first base when a ball was hit to the right side. But one batter hit a ball sharply back to the box and Richard knocked it down and threw him out.

An hour after his performance, Richard squeezed into a cramped conference room and faced an onslaught of reporters and television cameras. Flanked by Al Rosen, Houston Astros' president and general manager, Richard expressed happiness with his first true pitching effort since July 1980.

"I think it was satisfactory," he said. "I feel I've made a start. I'm not worried about my velocity, that will come. And I wasn't really nervous going out there. There's really nothing to worry about because I don't have a set timetable."

Richard stressed that he is still relearning many nuances of his profession. The stroke left him partially paralyzed on his right side two years ago. He underwent an 18-hour operation to graft new arteries into his pitching shoulder. And after sitting out the entire 1981 season, followed by a recent stint with the Sarasota Rookie League, Richard says he has no desire to rush his progress.

"I am ready to work myself back up by going through the farm system," he said. "It took a lot of hard work to get here and it's going to take a lot of hard work to get back to where I want to be. But I don't mind. I like hard work. I'm not going to look back to the past--only forward."

Rosen, who flew in from Houston to personally monitor Richard's return, was pleased with the initial results.

"I felt very good about it," he said. "J.R. is right where he should be. He's down here to throw strikes and learn to pitch again. Overall, I was very, very delighted with the way he threw the ball and reacted on the mound."

Rosen, however, emphasized that he has made no promises to his former star.

"Absolutely not," he said. "There are people in the big leagues who have never undergone what J.R. has. He's had an 18-hour operation and been near death with a stroke. You can't expect him to go out there and pitch like he used to. I think J.R., for his own sake, has to pitch and pitch quite a bit before he can face players in the big leagues again. But I have no doubt that he will be back with the Astros."

Richard looked at Rosen and replied in his quiet manner, "I will be back."

In the meantime, Richard will remain with Daytona Beach. And that suits his teammates, most of whom are at least 10 years younger than him, just fine.

"He's real friendly and everybody gets along with him well," said center fielder Neil Simons of Silver Spring, Md. "Everyone on this team is pulling for him because he's making a great comeback."

First baseman Glen Davis said most of the Daytona Beach players regard Richard with awe. "I think he intimidates people just because of who he is," said Davis. "I mean, he's been a National League all-star and we're still trying to get into the majors."

That is also the goal now of the man who strung together seasons of 20, 18, 18 and 18 victories for Houston and became the only right-hander to strike out more than 300 batters in a National League season.

"It's tough if you set your sights too high, too fast," said Jack Llewellyn, a psychologist who works with the Houston club. "He's moving along very well. I think he's shown he can do it."