"Baseball is pitching and three-run homers," was Earl Weaver's stock explanation of Baltimore's success last fall, but Milwaukee is giving that formula an added twist this year. The Brewers prefer to wait until the bases are loaded before one of their awesome array of sluggers hit one out.
On opening day Sexto Lezcano performed the feat in dramatic fashion, blasting a ninth-inning grand slam homer for a 9-5 victory over Boston. Then in the next game Cecil Cooper and Don Money both hit grand slams in the second -only the third time in major league history that a team has hit two in the same inning -to power an 18-1 slaughter.
Boston finally figured out how to stop the barrage in the finale of this opening series between two top American League East rivals -Bob Stanley pitched so well that the Brewers never got the bases loaded, and with out a chance to use their newfound weapon they went down to a 3-1 loss.
This, of course, was just one of the many exciting series played during the first week of the season. There were several other key early matchups of contenders, both intra-and inter-divisional, including Los AngelesHouston, Montreal-Philadelphia, Pittsburgh-St. Louis, and New York YankeesTexas. Jim Spencer of the Yankees and Jim Sundberg of the Rangers proved that Milwaukee didn't have a monopoly on grand slams by hitting one apiece. And there were plenty of thrills elsewhere.
There seemed to be even more than the usual number of dramatic moments all around the baseball map, in fact, but without question two of the most exciting contests took place within a couple of hundred miles of each other in Texas.
On opening night at Arlington the Rangers and Yankees engaged in a tremendous nine-inning scoreless duel between Ron Guidry (a two-hitter) and Jon Matlack (a three-hitter), with big-name relievers like Rich Gossage and Jim Kern continuing the battle in extra innings, and with Mickey Rivers scoring the game's only run in the 12th to make a winner out of Sparky Lyle. There was a time, of course, when that would have meant a victory for the Yankees, but these two play for Texas nowadays, and their heroics thus spoiled the 1980 debut of their old team and its new manager, Dick Howser.
Two days later it was Los Angeles at Houston in perhaps an even more dramatic struggle. Nolan Tyan, he of the million-dollar contract, made his first start for the Astros, but the longtime AL strikeout king was no puzzle to the Dodgers on the mound, giving up six hits, five walks, and four runs in four innings. At the plate, however, it was a different story.
To set the scene: Ryan has never been any kind of hitter, with a lifetime . 134 average and no home runs in 261 previous at-bats. Furthermore, he was batting now in the toughest home-run park in the majors (the Astrodome). Worse yet, because of the AL's designated-hitter rule, he hadn't faced live pitching at all in an official game for seven years.
His first time up, Nolan was true to form, waving at a couple of pitches before popping up. The next time, with two on and one out, many thought he'd be bunting. Instead he swung away and to the amazement of all hit a three-run homer to put the Astros ahead. They still led 5-4 in the ninth, but the Dodgers tied it against Joe Sambito and eventually won a 17-inning 6-5 decision that thrilled everyone except NBC's brass, which saw its first nationally televised game of the year run 5 1/2 hours and disrupt prime-time programming.
The Astros won their other three games with the Dodgers, though, and then knocked off Atlanta twice for a 5-1 start.
Weaver's Baltimore team, which as his favorite saying implies made up for a less-thanawesome overall lineup by getting its big hits at the right time in 1979, had trouble finding the range in the first week of the new campaign. Not only didn't the Orioles hit any of his pet three-run homers in their first five games, they didn't get the consistent pitching of a year ago, either. Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan, Steve Stone, and Sammy Stewart all were mauled by the lowly Chicago White Sox, who took three out of four games. But Jim Palmer, who won the opener, came back to beat Kansas City in his next start to lift the team to a 2-3 mark.
Pittsburgh's world champions got a better start, taking three out of four against prospective NL East challenger St. Louis, then edging Chicago 5-4 on Bill Robinson's 10th-inning homer as World Series hero Kent Tekulve beat Cy Young Award winner Bruce sutter in a battle of relief aces.
The hottest team in the early going, however, was Cincinnati, which reeled off six straight victories with an impressive combination of pitching and timely hitting that augurs well for its defense of the NFL West title. Three of the Red's first four victories were shutouts -by Frank Pastore, Mike LaCoss, and rookie Charlie Leibrandt. Two others were come-from-behind triumphs -one via a two-run homer by Dave Concepcion in the ninth, the other in even more spectacular fashion with a five-run ninth-inning rally capped by Dave Collins's bases-loaded triple. Then finally Tom Seaver, who had missed his opening-day assignment because of illness, breezed to an 8-3 victory in his first start of the year.
The biggest surprise of all was undoubtedly the fast start of the Chicago White Sox, who after dropping the opener to Palmer won those three straight from Baltimore and then edged the Yankees 4-3 in 14 innings to take over the AL West lead. Lamar Johnson was a one-man gang against the Orioles, blasting a three-run homer in the first win, getting four hits including another homer in the next, hitting a two-run double in the finale, and going 9 for 15 with six RBIs for the series. When the Yankees walked him intentionally in the 14th inning rather than face his hot bat, Chet Lemon beat that strategy by coming through with a game-winning single.
San Diego in the National League and Seattle in the American were other teams off to good starts, but those were mainly the result of opening series involving probable also-rans, where somebody had to win.