Making Giant strides by the bay
Los Angeles — Since June 27, when they bottomed out at 10 games under .500, the San Francisco Giants have had the best record of any team in major league baseball.
The amazing thing is that the Giants have done this with six rookies on their roster; after trading away all of last year's starting pitchers; and with an over-age first baseman who had only 35 at-bats in 1981. San Francisco has also survived a number of personality clashes between Manager Frank Robinson and two of his top hitters, outfielder Jack Clark and infielder Darrell Evans.
Although the Giants, as previously mentioned, have been playing well for a long time, it wasn't until they recently put together a 10-game winning streak that people began to notice. In fact, there is still a tendency among some of their National League rivals not to take them seriously.
''I don't think we're a fluke; I think we're a good baseball team,'' Robinson told me the other night at Dodger Stadium. ''I even liked us in spring training , when other people were saying our pitching was too thin and our infield too old.
''Naturally I was disappointed when we didn't play well early in the season, '' Frank continued. ''For a long time we weren't doing the things you have to do to win, like establishing a good balance offensively and defensively.
''Looking back, I think maybe I expected too much too soon from a team that had so many rookies and newly acquired players. Even now, I can't stand here and tell you that we can maintain our current pace for the rest of the season. But I can tell you that we bought ourselves a lot of confidence since April and that I expect us to finish strong.''
So far Robinson has gotten a tremendous amount of run production from 37 -year-old first baseman Reggie Smith and 38-year-old second baseman Joe Morgan. Smith, given his unconditional release by the Dodgers at the end of last season, was ignored by every team except the Giants.
Although Smith can no longer throw well enough to play the outfield, Robinson figured he could get by with Reggie at first base and that, given the chance to play regularly, his championship brand of hitting might return.
While the switch-hitting Smith is no longer capable of 30 home runs a year, he has been among the team's leaders all season in hits, runs scored, and runs batted in.
''It makes a difference when you're not injured and when you come to the park everyday knowing you're wanted and you're going to play,'' Reggie said.
Morgan, who batted only .240 last season, took off 14 pounds over the winter to get back to the same weight he carried when he was the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1975 and 1976. He's hitting a lot more like the old Joe Morgan, too, with a batting average just under .300.
''A quick bat has always been a major factor in my hitting, and for the last two years I've struggled while a lot of pitchers overpowered me,'' Joe explained. ''But taking off that extra weight has made all the difference in the world. Now I'm hitting everybody.''
If you don't remember the Giants' starting rotation from 1981, it consisted of Doyle Alexander, Vida Blue, Tom Griffin, Allen Ripley, and Ed Whitson, who started 107 of the team's 111 games during last year's split season.
They have since been replaced, after a kind of trial and error period, with rookies Bill Laskey and Atlee Hammaker; Rich Gale; Renie Martin; and former Giant Jim Barr, who was signed as a free agent.
''Give Laskey a little more time to learn his trade and in two years he'll be one of the top five pitchers in baseball,'' Morgan said. ''Already this kid has an outstanding fastball that tails away from hitters and he always seems to know where his pitches are going.'' Laskey, 12-8 after beating the Dodgers on Sunday, now leads the National League's starting pitchers with a 2.44 earned-run average.
Actually Robinson's strongest department this year has been his bullpen, which was directly responsible for 43 of the team's first 60 victories. The key figures here are Greg Minton and Gary Lavelle. Minton, second in the league in saves with 19, has lowered his earned-run average from 2.65 on June 21 to a current, eye-compelling 1.93.
The one Giant rookie (other than pitchers) who has been in Robinson's starting lineup since Opening Day is centerfielder Chili Davis, a switch-hitter who currently leads the team in hits and stolen bases. Another rookie who has played well is third baseman Tom O'Malley.
On paper, San Francisco's personnel doesn't rate with that of either Los Angeles or Atlanta. But now that the Giants have won or split 11 of their last 12 series, losing only to the Phillies, people aren't taking them for granted anymore.