Struggling Astros try to get a firmer grip on their winning ways

Winning back-to-back championships has become so tough in professional sports that most executives say the second title is often harder to achieve than the first.

The popular theory is that once you've achieved the heights, motivation invariably goes down. What you get is a lot of false hustle, stars who suddenly don't work as hard, and teams with a tendency to think they can put a hot streak together any time they feel like it.

But if this is what has been happening to the struggling Houston Astros, defending champs in the National League West, it has come as a complete surprise to manager Bill Virdon, who felt he had guarded against it.

"Complacency was one of the first things I warned my players about when we got into spring training," Virdon told me during the Astros' opening series in Los Angeles. "With so many teams in our division having helped themselves with trades over the winter, we were not unaware of the importance of starting out well.

"Of course, we made some moves ourselves by signing free agent pitcher Don Sutton (the NL's ERA champ in 1980) and trading with San Francisco for left-hander Bob Knepper," Bill continued. "We also picked up infielders Kiko Garcia from Baltimore and Dickie Thon from California, both of whom have the ability to play regularly, plus free agent Dave Roberts.

"Physically, because of what we added to our bench, I consider us a better team than we were last season. But mentally I don't think any manager can be sure how his team will react until it has gotten six or seven weeks into the regular season."

Where Houston still resembles United States Steel, despite its horrible start , is in the pitching department, which gave up the fewest home runs last year ( 69) of any team in the National League. The Astros also led in shutouts with 18 ; one-run games with 16; two-run games with 43; and team earned-run average with 3.10.

With Sutton and Knepper added to a starting staff that also includes Joe Niekro, Nolan Ryan, and Vern Ruhle, the Astros figure to stay close in most games. And probably no team in the league has a more effective bullpen trio than Dave Smith, Joe Sambito, and Frank LaCorte.

Virdon also said that pitcher J. R. Richard (who experienced a physical setback last season but now appears well on the way to recovery) still throws harder than most pitchers on his staff. However, Bill added that Richard will not pitch until his hand-to-eye coordination improves to the point where he can properly defend himself against line drives hit back at him.

Last week, in an obvious attempt to gain more hitting power, Houston traded infielder Dave Bergman and outfielder Jeff Leonard to San Francisco for first baseman Mike Ivie.

Although Ivie has had just one big league season in six of the caliber that has often been predicted for him (27 homers and 89 RBIs with the Giants in '79), Mike has occasionally had hot streaks at the plate when nobody could get him out.

Ivie joined an infield where Virdon platoons Rafael Landestoy and Thon at second, uses Craig Reynolds and Garcia at shortstop; and likes the steadiness of Art Howe at third base.

The arrival of Ivie could mean less work for left-handed hitting rookie Danny Heep, who hit .343 last season with Tucson and has some power. Houston has also been criticized for not re-signing second baseman Joe Morgan, who hit .300 the last six weeks of the 1980 season and provided such great leadership in the field.

The outfield is the same as last year with Jose Cruz in left; Cesar Cedeno in center; and Terry Puhl in right. Light hitting Alan Ashby and Luis Pujols, who produced three home runs between them in 1980, have done most of the catching so far.

Whether Houston emerges from its present slump slowly or with a bang, it is difficult to believe that any team with that much pitching won't at some point make a strong run at the current leaders in the National League West.

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