How teams stack up for NL playoffs

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Pitching and defense are generally the deciding factors in any postseason baseball competition. And there is little reason to believe that this won't be the case when Houston and Los angeles in the national League West and Montreal and Philadelphia in the NL East meet this week in the best-ot five divisions playoffs.

First let's look at Houston vs. L.A.:

The two best things we have going for us are our pitching and team balance, plus the fact that we are a team that was built to play well in the Astrodome, where even the league's best power hitters have trouble reaching the fences, explained Houston Manager Bill Virdon.

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"Any team that scores five six or runs against us, and that also goes for road games, is probably going to win, because we don't generate that much offense," Virdon continued. "But at the some time, considering the quality of out starters and bullpen, getting on the scoreboard against us isn't all that easy, either.

"Despite the fact that we could never seem to get the one run we needed to win much in our first 15 games, we haven't played poorly more than a couple of days in a raw since May. Not having pitcher Don Sutton for the playoff [broken kneecap] is a disapointment. but unlike a lot of clubs, we can lose a Sutton and still win with the kinds of depth we have."

The Dodgers, who had the best record (36-21) of any major league team in baseball's first season, have not played well defensively for nearly seven weeks. L.A. probably won't have injured third basemen Ron Cey back for the playoffs, either. Cey, when he's hot with the bat is often able to carry a team for several days at a time.

Shortstop has been a disaster all year for the Dodgers, where Bill Russell plays despite injuries, and his backup. Derrel Thomas, is apt to make the sepectacular play and then blow the rountine one when it counts. Oneseveral occasions this year Dodger outfielders have also played routine singles into extra base hits and even inside-the-park home runs.

But if L.A. was to get the same kind of pitching from starters Fernando Valenzuela, Jerry Reuss, Bob Welch, and Burt Hooton that the Astros expect from Nolan Ryan, Joe Niekro, Bob Knepper, and Vern Ruhle, this Series could easily go the distance. The key for the Dodgers would be to split two games with the Astros in Houston, then come home and make use of the power alleys in their own ballpark, where they have beaten the Astros 11 of the last 13 times they've played them.

Now for Montreal vs. Philadelphia:

Twice in the last two years the Expos under Dick Williams have come within an eyelash of winning the division title -- losing to Phildelphia last season and to Pittsburgh the year before.

When Montreal suddenly fired Williams on Sept. 7 and replaced him with Jim Fanning, the team's director of players personnel, the Expos were only 1 1/2 games out of first place. And the second-guessers came out of the woodwork in force when they lost their first three games under Fanning.

But if the fans panicked, Jim didn't. What Fanning did was show a lot of faith in his pitching staff, juggle his lineup around, and get some great baseball from young players Terry Francona and Tim Wallach as well as some timely hitting from supersub Jerry White.

Montreal also benefited from having so many September games at home, where the expos are used to playing in 40-degree temperatures and visiting teams often feel like they're working in a refrigerator.

"Nobody likes to play in cold weather, but at least our guys are used to it," Fanning said. "Most teams who come in here in September act like they don't even want to step out of the dugout sometimes, which gives us a great psychological edge."

Montreal is basically a power club that has hit more home runs than any NL team except the dodgers, and that often scores runs in bunches. Fanning also has two top starting pitchers in Steve Rogers and Scott Sanderson, plus a reliable bullpen.

What could hurt the Expos are all the little extra problems and metal pressures that seem to come to a young team appearing in the playoffs for the first time .

Although the world champion Phillies often played like a team going through the motions during the second half, if would be a mistake to attach any significance to their mediocre record, according to Dodger coach Danny Ozark, who managed the Phillies as recently as August 1979.

"I don't know why the Phillies didn't play better in the second half, because the talent is there," Ozark said. "Maybe knowing ahead of time that winning again wouldn't get them a bye in the playoffs made a lot of guys take it easy.

"But any team that has Mike Schmidt [31 home runs] in its lineup, Steve Carlton and Dick Ruthven going for it on the mound, Pete Rose always getting on base, and all that playoff experience has to be tough to beat."

For what it's worth, the Phillies were winless in five tries this season in Montreal, where the first two games of the playoffs take place, and also lost their season series to the Expos in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, six games to four.

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