As pennant races resume, NL has edge in suspense
Los Angeles — Even while the experts are still trying to agree on what makes the National League so superior to the American in All-Star Games (the NL's 4-2 victory this week was its ninth in a row and 17th of th last 18), baseball has already resumed what looks like two entirely different sets of pennant races.
In the American League East the New York Yankees have reached the halfway point in their schedule with a comfortable lead over their chief rivals.
In the AL West, in what is basically a weak division, the Kansas City Royals are considered at least the equal of silver certificates. The Royals, even with several injuries slowing them slightly, probably won't be pushed.
But in the National League it's double revolving door situation that might not be decided until the final week of the campaign; that is, if the second half of the season is anything like the first.
In the NL West, if you re devoted to the benefits of strong pitching, it will probably continue to be a battle between the first-place Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Even mini losing streaks seldom develop when you have pitchers like J. R. Richard and Joe Niekro (Houston) and Bob Welch and Jerry Reuss (Los Angeles).
Yet it certainly would be a mistake to ignore the defending champion Cincinnati Reds, who played so well down the stretch a year ago. What the Reds need more than anything else is for George Foster's power bat to heat up and to have Tom Seaver regain the pitching touch that five times made him a 20-game winner.
In the NL East, Montreal, Philadelphia, and defending champion Pittsburgh are in the kind of division race that could help baseball set an all-time attendance record.
Expos Manager Dick Williams keeps talking about his team's depth, and this, indeed, could be a deciding factor. But, if you remember, the Pirates really didn't take off a year ago until right after the All-Star break. And although the leadership of one man, captain Willie Stargell, can sometimes be exaggerated , Stargell often backs up his clubhouse rhetoric with home runs.
The Philies, because of a pitching staff at the start of the season that was considered suspect, did not look nearly as solid then as they do now. There was also speculation as to how new manager Dallas Green would handle all those egos.
But with Steve Carlton having a great year on the mound, plus all those seeing-eye bats belonging to Greg Luzinski, Mike Schmidt, Garry Maddox, Bake McBride, and Pete Rose, Philadelphia's 1976-77-78 champions have had little trouble making it back into the fast lane of this tough division after a one-year slump last season.
While the St. Louis Cardinals, who also play in that division, Probably took themselves out of the race early with a series of disappointing and mystifying performances, they still have a tremendous amount of talent. New St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog still has about 80 games in which to play giant killer. And while the Cardinals may have problems rescuing the whole body, they certainly should have no trouble saving face.
Getting back to the American League East, the Detroit Tigers were a suprising second (behind New York) at the All-Star break, but are not expected to stay there -- the theory being that the Tigers are playing over their heads.
But if the Milwaukee Brewers continue to have problems with their pitching and the Baltimore Orioles wait much longer to renew the close relationship they had last year with consistency, why not Detroit for the No. 2 spot?
In the AL West, nobody really believes that Chicago, Texas, or Oakland can catch Kansas City, although Manager Billy Martin has gotten remarkable mileage to date out of the A's. Last year's defending champion California Angels, mostly because of weak pitching and injuries, are spending the summer visiting the underground city of Murania (one of owner Gene Autry's old cowboy haunts) and hitting into double plays.
Most of baseball's second-half excitement should be concentrated in the National League. In the West the Dodgers can probably beat the Astros if they get relief pitchers Don Stanhouse and Terry Forster off the disabled list and improve their infield defense. That is, if the Reds don't sneak in and rewrite the script.
In the NL East, you go with the Pirates if you like experience; with the Expos if you like youth; and with the Philies if you think Steve Carlton can win 30 games.