Baseball notebook; Four fast-starting clubs are surprise -- at least for now

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Even those with a healthy admiration for fast starts aren't buying the early-season success of the Texas Rangers, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, or Cleveland Indians, who at this point are either leading their divisions or are close to it. Unexpected things like this can happen when a have-not team suddenly gets an exceptional run of fine pitching or timely hitting.

Of course, it probably isn't accurate to call Pittsburgh a have-not team. Manager Chuck Tanner's Pirates stayed in a tight National League East race last year that also included St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Montreal, until the final two weeks of the season.

While Pittsburgh has lost Willie Stargell to retirement and center fielder Omar Moreno to Houston, a rejuvenated Dave Parker (who had only 244 at-bats last season) could make fans forget them both. Then there are the team's two Lee's - Lee Mazilli and Lee Lacy - who can often carry a team for short periods with their hitting. The club's oft-injured pitching staff is the chief gray area.

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Meanwhile, Doug Rader, who earned a reputation as a flake with a series of bizarre incidents during 11 years as a major league player, seems to be doing everything he can to erase that image as the new manager of the Rangers. Rader has Texas, which lost 34 more games than it won last season, playing serious baseball on the strength of fewer mistakes, more scoring punch, and a better bullpen.

It's also time to get the applause meter out for a reading on manager Russ Nixon of the Cincinnati Reds and new manager Mike Ferraro of the Cleveland Indians. Nixon currently has Cincinnati playing like it did when the Reds still had such names as Rose, Perez, Morgan, and Foster in the lineup. Johnny Bench, who didn't hit much for the Reds last season, has been ripping the ball at a better than .400 clip.

Ferraro, whose chief claim to fame before the Indians hired him was the way he upset Yankee owner George Steinbrenner with his third base coaching, may have found the key to Cleveland's problems - a lack of depth. The three players the Indians got from the Phillies in the Von Hayes trade (second baseman Manny Trillo, short-stop Julio Franco, and outfielder George Vukovich) have provided a balance that wasn't there a year ago. In fact, last season Cleveland set a record for men left on base. Pitching stand-in; batters of note

The Milwaukee Brewers think they may have found a replacement for injured 1982 Cy Young Award winner Pete Vuckovich in veteran left-hander Jerry Augustine. While Augustine's 1-3 record last year doesn't indicate that, Jerry did have a stretch between May 13 and July 1 when his earned-run average was a neat 2.22. This year Augie has already beaten the hard-hitting California Angels. . . . Outfielder Dave Winfield, who slugged 37 balls out of the park in 1982, had a home run in each of his first three games this year with the Yankees. . . . Although Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs compiled the highest average (.349) of any player in the majors last season, he says he wants to learn to hit more like Kansas City's George Brett. Boggs, who didn't get up enough times to qualify for the batting title, is impressed with the way Brett can rattle balls off the left field wall at Boston's Fenway Park. . . . In a pre-season survey of baseball writers by The Sporting News, Montreal and Los Angeles were picked to win in the National League, Milwaukee and Kansas City in the American. As many picked the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals for second in the NL East as selected Montreal for first. Swing survey; Dodgers' future

Al Campanis, general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, says that a two-year study of three major league teams has revealed that the best time for a hitter to swing is when the count is three balls and one strike. After that, the ball-strike percentages that favor the hitter most are: two balls and no strikes; one ball and no strikes; first pitch thrown; then three balls and two strikes. That same survey also shows that when the batter is consistently ahead of the pitcher in the count, he's probably going to hit over .300 and vice versa.

When Los Angeles hired Joe Amalfitano as its third base coach this season, the Dodgers were actually lining up their manager of the future, a source close to the club told me. LA's master plan has manager Tommy Lasorda replacing Campanis when he retires several years from now, and Amalfitano replacing Lasorda.

This idea, I'm told, originated with Lasorda. While Amalfitano hasn't been promised anything, Joe understands that the opportunity is there. He managed parts of three seasons (1979-80-81) with the Chicago Cubs. Virdon's managing comparison

From Bill Virdon of the Montreal Expos, who's had previous managing stints with the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees, and Houston Astros:''I've always felt it was tougher to manage in the American League than the National because of the presence of the designated hitter. Since the pitcher never bats in the American League, he thinks that's reason enough to never take him out no matter how badly he's going, and a manager can get caught up in that if he's not careful.

''In the National League things are more cut and dried. If your pitcher isn't right, you're probably not going to let him go too far before you signal the bullpen. If it's late in the game and you need someone who can bunt or a certain kind of pinch-hitter, you don't even contemplate not removing the pitcher, you just do it. That's why I say it's easiest to manage in the National League; the decisions are almost always right there in front of you.''

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