NL playoffs have tough act to follow

By , Sports editor of The Christian Science Monitor

With their pressurized, best-in-five format, and with the World Series awaiting the winner, baseball's annual league playoffs are just about guaranteed to produce high drama. This year's National League showdown between Houston and Philadelphia will have to go some, though, to match the incredible season-ending series that got the two teamshere.

In twin denouements no scriptwriter could have planned any better, both regular season races came down to the final weekend with the championship still up for grabs and the contender meeting head-on. The combatants played it for all it was worth, too, coming up day after day with game-winning home runs, late-inning rallies, or both, until the Phillies eventually subdued Montreal and the Astros hung on to finally beat Los Angeles.

Talk about tough acts to follow! Each of these windups was a mini playoff in itself, and the operative word for the current official championships series just has to be ant iclimax. And yet this match-up certainly has all the ingredients for plenty of excitement in its own right.

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To begin with, the off-field images of the teams are as different as possible: the quiet, conservative straight shooters from MidAmerica vs. the fussin' and feudin' Phils, who often seemed to spend more time this year fighting among themselves or with the news media than trying to beat the opposition.

On the field there are some marked differences, too, with Houston relying primarily on speed, defense, pitching depth, and overall team balance, while Philadelphia, thought not exactly deficient in these areas, leans much more heavily on the super talents of individual stars such as the Mike Schmidt, the major league home rum leader, and 24-game winner Steve Carlton.

The Astros, of course, are the Cinderella team in this contest -- the expansion franchise seeking the first pennant in their 19-year history. They're also something of a sentimental favorite because of the way they fought back from the devastating loss of pitcher J.R. Richard in midseason. Furthermore, they're an exciting team, whose dashing style of play is fun to watch.

It's easy to cast the "big, bad Phillies" in the villain's role for this drama, yet anyone familiar with the city's history of diamond frustrations can hardly help thinking it is overdue for a little success of its own.

The Phillies have appeared in only two World Series in their long history -- in 1915, when they were able to win just one game, and in 1950, when they were swept 4-0 by the Yankees.

And more recently, of course, the team won the NL East title three straight years (1976, '77, '78), only to fail each time in the playoffs.

Whatever happens in this battle, therefore, the National League is certain to be represented in the World Series by a team that has never won the big prize. But despite their history of past failures, the 1980 versions of these clubs are anything but losers -- as both demonstrated decisively when the chips were down.

Most people, for instance, thought Houston would fold when Richard was lost for the year in July because of illness -- especially since pitching is such a key ingredient in this team's success. The Astros hung in there, though, and with manager Bill Virdon juggling the rest of a still-strong mound corps, featuring Joe Niekro, Vern Ruhle, Nolan Ryan, Ken Forsch, and relievers Joe Sambito and Frank LaCorte, they manged to get the job done, though just barely.

After clinging to a slim lead for months, the Astros lost it all in three days as the Dodgers parlayed some clutch home run hitting with a couple of Houston defensive lapses into a trio of one-run victories that left the teams tied at the end of the regular season. The resulting one-game playoff was Houston's last chance to avert one of the worst late-season collapses in history , and the Astros proved equal to it, winning 7-1 knuckleballer Niekro earned his 20th victory.

The Phillies didn't take things quite that far, but they too came down to the wire in a close race, then won it in dramatic fashion. Tied with the Expos entering the last three games, they won the first one, 2-1, then clinched the title the next day with an 11-inning 6-4 triumph -- with Schmidt fittingly winning both games with his 47th and 48th home runs.

Since this is Philadelphia's fourth playoff appearance in five years, it obviously has a big edge in the experience department. Schmidt, Carlton, shortstop Larry Bowa, and reliever Tug McGraw (5-4, 1.47 ERA, and 20 saves for one of his greatest seasons) are among those who have been here many times before. And of course there's Pete Rose a fixture on so many great Cincinnati teams.

Manager Dallas Green has also infused this year's team with some exciting newcomers, led by Lonnie Smith, the .339-hitting Rookie of the Year candidate. The result is a team with many strengths, yet one that is vulnerable at times because of defensive weaknesses here and there, plus questionable starting pitching after Carlton.

The Astros have a few familiar faces, too, starting with Joe Morgan (an irony of this playoff is that he and Rose, after so many years in Cincinnati, are now playing for different teams and against each other). Except for little Joe, longtime star Cesar Cedeno, and millionaire pitcher Ryan, however, Houston's lineup doesn't have many names that ring a bell with casual fans. It's a good one, though, with plenty of solid hitters like Jose Cruz, Terry Puhl, Enos Cabell, and Art Howe to keep pecking away. And it's fast one, which keeps constant pressure on the defense by stealing, executing the hit-and-run, and taking the extra base.

Houston teams have historically been short on power, and although this year's club was a little bit better in that department than some of its predecessors, it followed the same pattern as shown by the fact that Puhl's 13 homers were a club high. Part of that, of course, is due to playing in the Astrodome, where homers are few and far between.

Anyway, it figures to be quite a series -- and whoever wins it should be ready to make a strong bid for its first world championships.

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