Pitching-rich Astros stand pat in bid for repeat NL West title

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The Houston Astros, the team logic forgot in 1986, go after their second consecutive National League West title this season relying chiefly on the same key players who made it happen a year ago. This is usually considered a questionable approach, since history shows that teams which fail to make at least one or two significant changes during the winter are frequently doomed to failure. Even Houston must have believed this up to a point. The Astros entertained thoughts of signing free-agent catcher Rich Gedman after he failed to come to terms with Boston. And reports continue to surface that they would trade veteran outfielder Jos'e Cruz for a shortstop who could play every day.

Still, most people feel that since manager Hal Lanier did not subtract from his pitching staff, which had the second lowest earned-run average in the NL and the most saves (51), the Astros will be very tough to upset. Houston also features that most famous of all baseball coaches, Yogi Berra, who has taken part in 22 World Series - 14 as a player, 2 as a manager, and 6 as a coach.

The Houston pitching staff, which may be exceeded in depth only by that of the defending World Champion New York Mets, numbers among its starters Mike Scott, Bob Knepper, Nolan Ryan, Jim DeShaies, and Danny Darwin.

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Scott, the National League's Cy Young Award winner, is the master of the split-fingered fastball. This is a pitch that looks like a regular fastball to the hitter (actually appears much like an airplane that is coming in for a landing), except that at the last moment the pitch screws itself into the ground.

The truth is, Scott wasn't much of a pitcher until current San Francisco manager Roger Craig (out of baseball at the time) gave Mike an eight-day crash course in how to throw it in 1984. Since then Scott has gone from a career high 10 victories to consecutive 18-win seasons. In 33 starts last year, only once did he allow more than three runs. And he was at his best in the critical late action, pitching a no-hitter against the Giants on Sept. 25 in the game that clinched the division title, then overpowering the Mets twice in the playoffs.

Knepper, a veteran left-hander who was considered flighty and inconsistent during his early years with San Francisco (though he did win 17 games one season), began to find himself three years ago and simply keeps getting better. Last year he was Houston's No. 2 winner with a 17-12 record.

If you need to be introduced to Nolan Ryan, who has five no-hitters among his 241 major league victories, then evidently you have been vacationing on Gilligan's Island. Even though at age 40 Ryan now needs that extra day of rest between starts, he can still make a baseball look like an M&M candy to most hitters. Nolan is, of course, the major leagues' all-time strikeout king, and he added 194 to his total last year while compiling a 12-8 won-lost mark.

DeShaies also won 12 games last year as a rookie, setting a major league record in one of them by striking out eight consecutive Los Angeles batters. The hard-throwing southpaw may not get any faster, but he could be even tougher as he gains more experience.

Darwin, who had three years with the Texas Rangers at the beginning of the 1980s when he went 32-21, was 5-2 with the Astros after a late-season trade with Milwaukee. Earlier Danny had won six games with the Brewers.

But this rotation is just part of Houston's strength on the mound. Another department that all rival National League managers look upon with wonderment (yes, even the Mets' Davey Johnson) is Lanier's bullpen. It produced a league-leading 51 saves, including 33 by right-hander Dave Smith, who could probably shut the door on King Kong.

The other two dependables in the Astros' bullpen are Charlie Kerfeld and Aurelio L'opez.

Kerfeld, a certified, genuine, honest-to-goodess character who isn't afraid to challenge the hitters, often runs his mouth more than his legs. Depending on what day of the week it is and what kind of mood he's in, Kerfeld will sell you one of his ``Bermuda Triangle Search and Rescue Team'' T-shirts for either $25 or $50.

The son of a cook - and apparently a good one - Charlie (now a relatively slim, for him, 245) once weighed 280 pounds. But he appeared in the most games by any Houston pitcher last year (61), won 11, saved seven, and struck out almost twice as many hitters as he walked.

Although L'opez, who is almost as old as Ryan, also saved seven games last year, he consistently finishes a distant third in the publicity department behind Smith and Kerfeld. But his smarts are well known to opposing hitters, and he can rely on the experience of a dozen years in the Mexican League and 10 more in the majors, mostly with Detroit.

While pitching to Houston is not exactly like pitching to the power-heavy New York Mets (who outscored the Astros 783-654 last season), Lanier has a lot of tough outs in his lineup.

Chief among them is first baseman Glenn Davis, the first Astro to hit more than 30 home runs since Jimmy Wynn logged 33 in 1969. Davis finished with 31, also drove in 101 runs, and was runner-up to Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt as the National League's Most Valuable Player. Runs-batted-in power in the 70s was provided by outfielders Jos'e Cruz and Kevin Bass, who led the club in hits with 184. Third baseman Denny Walling was also a solid contributor with 58 RBIs.

In the field, Bill Doran turns the double play as well as any second baseman in the league, while center fielder Billy Hatcher, a late-season acquisition from the Chicago Cubs, tightens the outer defenses.

Even though Lanier platooned at shortstop with Craig Reynolds and Dickie Thon and still won the NL West, he would still prefer someone who could handle this position on an everyday basis. Yet any trade the Astros could make for a shortstop answering that description would almost certainly cost them one of their best young pitchers.

Catcher Alan Ashby, who gets his name in the paper only on slow news days, is a much better player than his statistics might indicate.

Can Houston repeat in the NL West? It will probably depend on two things: (1) How much the Cincinnati Reds have improved their pitching, and (2) how close the Astros can come to duplicating last season's excellent all-around performance.

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