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

By Phil Elderkin / March 16, 1987

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.

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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.

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.