Streaking Braves top early season baseball surprise

Major league baseball has hardly reached first base in its 162-game schedule -- and already the experts have begun looking for shredding machines or at least an old wastebasket in which to dump pre-season form charts.

The principal perpetrators of this wonderful nonsense have been the Atlanta Braves, who set a major league record by winning their first 12 games, plus the Chicago White Sox, who started off 8-0 before their streak was stopped by the New York Yankees.

Last year the only team Atlanta beat out in the National League West was hapless San Diego. The White Sox were a little better, compiling a 54-52 overall record during the strike-abbreviated 1981 season, but still crept home 81/2 games back in the American League West.

New Atlanta manager Joe Torre's pitching, which was supposed to stop dead after 43-year-old knuckleballer Phil Niekro, has suddenly been getting quality help from people who had never quite been able to do the job before. Particularly effective has been right-hander Rick Mahler who shut out San Diego on two hits and Houston on four in his first two starts.

Meanwhile the batting order has been getting its hits in the right places as the Braves broke the National League season-opening record of 10 straight victories set by the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers (who went on to win the pennant and the World Series), then also bettered the major league mark of 11 which had been estabished last year by Oakland en route to the AL West championship.

According to Deacon Jones, hitting coach of the Houston Astros, Atlanta has never been that far away in the last couple of years from being a solid team. The Braves have pretty good personnel, Jones explained, including the kind of leadoff hitter in rookie centerfielder Brett Butler who is continually getting on base, plus a better-than-average bullpen. ''And shortstop Rafael Ramirez, who has talent but was so unsteady last year that he made 30 errors, suddenly seems to have matured overnight,'' he added.

Balance has also been the key for the White Sox, who are playing their best baseball since the Glory Days of shortstop Luis Aparacio and second baseman Nelson Fox, who in the 1950s were a wall in the middle of Chicago's infield.

The White Sox have a new bullpen ace and folk hero in Salome Barojas, the Fernando Valenzuela of the American League. Barojas was discovered by manager Tony LaRussa while he was scouting the Mexican League during last year's strike.

Instead of rushing Salome up to the parent club, LaRussa had the 24-year-old righthander finish the season in the Mexican League, where he was 12-3 with a 3. 04 earned-run average. In his first 9 1/3 innings this year, Salome, who like Valenzuela speaks almost no English, has allowed only two hits and no runs.

There is also a small revolution going on in San Diego, where new manager Dick Williams has the Padres playing the most aggressive baseball in the National League. Among the Padres' recent accomplishments is a four-game sweep of the world champion Los Angeles Dodgers, which has since grown into a seven-game winning streak.

Another national league team on a tear is St. Louis, which has posted a nine-game winning streak. What a lot of teams try to do with power the Cardinals are doing with speed, defense, and great relief pitching.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, seem to be playing with their fielding gloves on the wrong hand, while at the plate they have been constantly leaving runners on base. In desperation, manager Tommy Lasorda shook up his lineup so much that he's even had Steve Garvey batting second.

Although their current position in the American League West doesn't suggest their long-ball power, the Minnesota Twins have been exciting crowds everywhere this spring with their Baby Bull wrecking crew.

Headed chiefly by rookie first baseman Kent Hrbek, who has the power to hit a ball out of any park, including Yellowstone, the Twins' lineup is enough to keep any opposing pitching staff awake at night. The other young Minnesota hitters whose names are worth remembering are rookie third baseman Gary Gaetti and center fielder Jim Eisenreich.

Hrbek, a left-handed hitter, led all organized baseball last year with a .379 average in Class A ball at Visalia, Calif. He also beat the Yankees with a home run in his first major league at bat late last year, and his swing has occasionally been compared with that of Ted Williams.

Strange happenings have also been going on around the California Angels, whose pitching staff is suddenly the toast of baseball, partly because it has so many opposing hitters popping the ball up.

Described as probably no better than average before the season started, California pitching has been of World Series caliber so far.

What hasn't lived up to expectations are Angel hitters Reggie Jackson, Fred Lynn, Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, etc. Jackson, in particular, seems to have misplaced the rhythm that in past years has made the ball jump off his bat.

The Angels were also dealt a severe blow when all-star shortstop Rick Burleson underwent shoulder surgery 11 games into the season and has been ruled out for the year. Fortunately the Angels have a better than average replacement in Tim Foli, acquired over the winter from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Among major league teams that were expected to be powerful prior to the start of the season, but are currently struggling, are the Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, Oakland A's, New York Yankees, Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles.

Individually, two pitchers have contributed to the excitement. Seattle's Gaylord Perry recently notched his 298th lifetime win with a 13-strikeout performance against the California Angels, while Milt Wilcox of Detroit pitched a one-hitter against Kansas City.

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