In inflamed prostate gland will delay Nolan Ryan's quest to become major league baseball's strikeout king, a Houston Astros official said today.

Team spokesman Mike Ryan said the 36-year-old right-hander was placed on the 21-day disabled list today, along with infielder Art Howe. Howe, who plays mostly at first base, has tendinitis of the right elbow, the spokesman said.

Ryan, 16-12 last year, had been scheduled to start against Los Angeles April 5 in the Astros' opening game. He needs only 15 strikeouts to break Walter Johnson's all-time major league record of 3,508 in a career.

Joe Niekro, the team's best pitcher last year with a 17-12 record, probably will start for the team if Ryan is unable to pitch.

Ryan's illness is the latest medical problem to hit the Astros' pitching staff.

Reliever Joe Sambito was recently lost for the season when it was determined he would have to undergo a third operation on his left elbow.

Also, former all-star pitcher J.R. Richard is undergoing rehabilitation from surgery to correct a circulation problem in a leg. He is a longshot to pitch for the Astros this season.