When you look at the Houston Astros these days, you might just be looking at baseball's next world champions, although the playoffs don't even start until the first week in October.
If that sounds somewhat presumptuous, it shouldn't. Since the beginning of the Second Season on Aug. 10, the Astros have shown what a team can do with super pitching, solid defense, and consistency.
Although Houston's hitting is sometimes maligned in the news media, it is at least adequate to win a pennant in the Astrodome, which discourages the home run and favors manager Bill Virdon's line-drive hitters.And so far the team's offense has had some very big clutch performances on the road.
But the thing that makes you think the Astros might outlast Cincinnati and Los Angeles in their division is the starting rotation of Nolan Ryan, Joe Niekro , Bob Knepper, Don Sutton, and Vern Ruhle. The bullpen, which features Joe Sambito, Dave smith, and Frank LaCorte, needn't apologize for anything, either.
The big surprise has been the left-handed Knepper, who came over to Houston this year after two losing seasons with the San Francisco Giants.
Mentally tight and seldom relaxed in the presence of his San Francisco teammates, Bob has responded well to the scoutmaster approach of Virdon, whose tongue soothes rather than burns when players make mistakes.
Knepper, who mostly throws overhand but sometimes drops down to a three-quarter or sidearm motion, has a fastball that explodes, a curve that hitters often find unreachable, and a big league change-up.
Houston has also benefited from getting second baseman Phil Garner from the Pittsburgh Pirates and outfielder Tony Scott from the St. Louis Cardinals.
And Virdon, who never talks when he doesn't have to, has kept it all together with a minimum of fanfare. By moving players on and off the bench, by tightening up his infield with the arrival of Garner, and by simply letting his pitching staff be itself, Bill has achieved a balance that all managers look for but seldom find.
Although the Boston Red Sox were severely criticized when they traded away stars like outfielder Fred Lynn, shortstop Rick Burleson, and third baseman Butch Hobson, nobody can fault them for their selection of Ralph Houk as manager.
After two years away from the game, Houk came back this season and has kept Boston in the American League East race. Just when it looked as though Detroit might put a lock on the second-half title, the Red Sox cooled off the Tigers with four straight wins at Fenway Park. Then after dropping the opener of a weekend series against New York, they came back to beat the Yankees two straight , including one in which they overcame a 5-1 defecit with seven runs in the eighth inning.
Whether Boston continues to play this way or goes back to being a middle-of-the-road team, Houk has shown that a manager can sometimes do more than just make out a lineup card.
The two leading candidates for Most Valuable Player in the National League this year are third baseman Mike Schmidt of the Philadelphia Phillies and outfielder Andre Dawson of the Montreal Expos.
The feeling here is that Schmidt, with better statistics in more areas, will get the award for the second year in a row. The only other strong possibility is outfielder George Foster of the Cincinnati Reds, who leads the majors in runs batted in. In the American League, the Oakland A's feel they have the top candidate in outfielder Rickey Henderson, who is having a super year at the bat and in the field.
L.A. pitcher Fernando Valenzuela's eight shutout recently against the Atlanta Braves tied him for the major league rookie record with Ewell Russell, who also had eight with the 1913 Chicago White Sox. However, Russell did it with a baseball that had no rabbit in it and often stayed in play even after it became discolored.
Valenzuela, Cincinnati's Tom Seaver, and 1980 winner Steve Carlton of Philadelphia all have National League Cy Young Award possibilities, while Dennis Martinez of Baltimore, Pete Vuckovich of Milwaukee and Jack Morris of Detroit are among those vying for AL honors.
In the Rumor Department, it is reported that managers Frank Howard of San Diego and Chuck Tanner of Pittsburgh will be fired after the season, and that the California Angels will not re-sign All-Star second baseman Bobby Grich.