Los Angeles — This is written after spending about 15 minutes talking with Manager Bob Lillis of the Houston Astros behind the batting cage at Dodger Stadium while his starting lineup struggled to hit the ball safely even in practice. It is a problem that Lillis probably is going to have to deal with all year.
Anytime a ball club goes 0-9 to open the season, the way Houston did before finally winning a couple of games, panic sets in among the fans. They forget that when Lillis took over the fading Astros from Bill Virdon late last season, he rallied them to a 28-23 record. Houston has also been burdened this spring by a number of injuries to its pitching staff.
''We've won with pitching, speed, and defense before and once we've gotten everybody off our injured list, I think we can do this again,'' Lillis explained. ''With our hitters, we're not going to score a lot of runs. We know that. But if our pitchers come through, we won't need too much offense.''
The starting rotation that Lillis values so highly consists of Nolan Ryan (who got his initial 1983 victory Sunday after missing the first two weeks with a physical problem); Joe Niekro (who won 17 last year); Mike LaCoss (a refugee from the Reds); and Bob Knepper (who won 17 for the Giants in 1978 and hasn't done much since). Ryan, who has now moved within seven strikeouts of Walter Johnson's all-time record of 3,580, is scheduled to pitch next against Philadelphia in Houston Friday night.
The questionable condition of Houston's bullpen is another story, however, and this may force Lillis to stay with his starters longer than he might like to. With ace reliever Joe Sambito reportedly due to miss another year with injuries, Bob began inserting former starter Vern Ruhle into the middle of spring training games.
So it is probably safe to assume that Ruhle will both start and work out of the bullpen this season. While a combination of Dave Smith and Frank LaCorte might be able to replace Sambito, Smith and LaCorte are also coming back from injuries that often made them ineffective in 1982.
After that, Lillis's only options would appear to be rookie left-hander Mike Madden and Frank DePino, or maybe right-hander Mike Scott, whose 5.14 earned-run average last year prompted the New York Mets to trade him. Although 23-year-old right-hander Julio Solano is still with the club, that's probably too big a jump for a kid who pitched in Class A ball last year.
Offensively the Astros' .247 team batting average last year tied them with the Mets for last place in the National League. They also hit only 74 home runs - poor, but understandable when you consider they play half their games in the Houston Astrodome, where fly balls carry like manhole covers.
Asked if Houston had tried to trade during the off-season for an established slugger (other than Steve Garvey), Lillis replied:
''Of course we tried. But except under unusual circumstances, players like that are never available. And while I'd welcome a hitter with that kind of power , I'm not sure that is what this club needs most. Actually any slugger's home run totals are going to be cut drastically if he has to play 81 games in the Astrodome.''
Houston does have a lot of speed at the top of its batting order in center fielder Omar Moreno (acquired as a free agent) and rookie second baseman Bill Doran, who hit so well at the tail end of last season. But Dickie Thon is out of place batting third, and third baseman Phil Garner, the team's cleanup man, hit only 13 home runs all year.
After that come three fine contact hitters in left fielder Jose Cruz, first baseman Ray Knight (who married pro golfer Nancy Lopez during the off-season), and right fielder Terry Puhl. But if Puhl doesn't hit better soon, he's apt to lose his job to either Art Howe or rookie Kevin Bass.
Alan Ashby, because of his defense and the way he handles pitchers, can probably expect to catch at least 120 games, with Luis Pujols in reserve.
Although some experts think that Houston is taking a gamble by starting Doran at second base, this kid is already a big leaguer in the field. While Bill hasn't hit yet, his minor league record suggests that he will.
In the meantime Lillis has the option of returning Garner to second base for awhile, where he played last year, and installing Art Howe at third base. That move would take a lot of pressure off Doran, who obviously has been pressing.
''Anytime you get away poorly, you risk having players try too hard or attempt to do things that are beyond them, and then you're worse off than when you started,'' Lillis said. ''Right now I'm fighting that situation, plus the feeling that in the next few weeks we have to win all our games or we're out of the race.
''If I can just get across to my players that there are still 150 games left and that we can make up our losses gradually, then we'll probably be all right, '' Bob continued. ''We have people here who can play this game and I still have high hopes for our pitching. Probably few fans would agree with me right now, but we're capable of putting together some winning streaks.''