Four teams vie in NL East; Sox socker
So far this season the National League East has been like a huge whirlpool, throwing first one contender and then another to the top. No one has been able to hold the lead for long, and at this point any one of the four teams - Philadelphia, Montreal, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis - still has a good chance to win it.
Montreal, probably the best team on paper when the season started, has only recently begun to play to its potential. Baseball's underground claims the Expos would have made their move sooner if there hadn't been so many personality conflicts among several of their best players. But there was nothing lacking in Montreal's makeup last week when it swept a three-game series from Pittsburgh, which had been the hottest team in baseball since the All-Star break.
If Manager Bill Virdon hasn't been the quiet motivator that the Expos' brass expected, at least he has done nothing to panic the club. And whether Montreal eventually wins or loses in the NL East, it has a chance to provide the league's MVP in outfielder Andre Dawson and the Cy Young Award winner in right-hander Steve Rogers.
For a while, after General Manager Paul Owens replaced Pat Corrales as Philadelphia manager, the Phillies played as though they were angry with the switch, losing some games they probably should have won. But with Mike Schmidt going on a home run tear and Pete Rose constantly getting on base, all that so-called age on the club suddenly doesn't seem so important anymore. In fact, the Phillies have now won five in a row and taken over the division lead - at least for the moment.
Meanwhile nobody is writing off the hard-hitting Pirates, who had won 22 of 29 games prior to dropping the finale of a three-game series with the Phillies and then getting zonked by the Expos. Even though the critics haven't gone out of their way to praise Manager Chuck Tanner's mound staff (except for Larry McWilliams), Pirate pitching during the winning stretch was extremely steady. And when rookie Jose DeLeon, recalled from Hawaii in late June, started off with two impressive victories, things really brightened for Pittsburgh.
The division's biggest mystery team to date has been St. Louis, which can't seem to sustain anything except losing streaks. But with all that talent at Manager Whitey Herzog's disposal, nobody wants to say anything derogatory that might wake up the defending world champions. Tidbits from around the majors
* Gaylord Perry of the Kansas City Royals, who beat Boston recently with a sidearm delivery he hasn't taken out of the closet in years, has moved to within two strikeouts of Walter Johnson's lifetime total of 3,508 (the major league record until both Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton surpassed it earlier this season). Perry's win made him 5-12 for the season and 312-263 lifetime. However, Red Sox Manager Ralph Houk said it looked to him as though Gaylord was getting more mileage out of his ''funny pitch'' than his new delivery. For years rival teams have constantly accused Perry of throwing a spitball.
* Rookie pitcher Walt Terrell of the New York Mets, who was hitless in 14 trips to the plate this season, crashed two home runs off Ferguson Jenkins in the same game at Chicago's Wrigley Field on Aug. 4. The last major league pitcher to hit two homers in a game was Randy Lerch of Philadelphia, who did it against Pittsburgh on Sept. 30, 1978.
* From Seattle Manager Del Crandall on the hitting problems of the Los Angeles Dodgers' rookie first baseman Greg Brock, who had previously played under Crandall at Albuquerque: ''The fact that Brock hasn't done better surprises me because his talent and makeup are such that I would say he can handle just about anything. Maybe he put too much pressure on himself, or maybe the Dodgers expected too much too soon. Whatever the problem, my feeling is that Brock will solve it.''
* George Brett, who could probably hit home runs with a blackthorn shillelagh , reportedly has been offered as much as $10,000 for the pine-tarred bat that so upset New York Manager Billy Martin. However, the collector who made the offer wants the bat now, before Brett chips it on a Goose Gossage fastball or it runs out of base hits.
* There's a good chance that the Pittsburgh Pirates will try to trade shortstop Dale Berra, son of Yankee coach Yogi Berra, at the end of the season. Dale has never been the hitter the Pirates expected, and they are no longer willing to live with his shortcomings in the field.
* The following is from an American League manager who didn't want to be quoted by name. ''We had completed a road trip and had arrived at the airport only to discover that all flights had been canceled until the next morning because of fog,'' he said. ''When I announced that we'd be taking the bus back to our hotel, one of my players said: 'Hey, Skip, don't forget that we've got half-a-day's meal money coming.' Well, I happen to know that player makes over $ 700,000 a year. But his thinking, unfortunately, extends all through baseball today.'' Luzinski bullying baseballs
The Chicago White Sox, who have taken a substantial first-place lead in the American League West, are not a one-man team, of course. That is, except on days when designated hitter Greg Luzinski is carrying the club on his massive shoulders. While Luzinski hasn't hit for average this season, he has hit for power; his 23rd home run of the season coming Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles.
Asked about his approach to hitting, Luzinski replied: ''You have to believe you can handle any pitcher in any situation and then you have to keep right on believing it. The biggest thing for a hitter is to avoid dry spells. You know, where he goes to the plate 20 times without a hit. That's the kind of thing that not only kills your batting average, but also your confidence. The greatest compliment any rival manager can pay a hitter is to have his team play him straightaway defensively. It means he's hitting the ball well to all fields and that there is no set way to defend against him. Lately I've been getting that kind of treatment.''