Cardinals battle for division lead with a nestful of baseball rivals

Manager Whitey Herzog of the St. Louis Cardinals, on camera, was being interviewed in front of the Redbirds' dugout by a television reporter whose questions were as bland as Herzog's answers.

The entire scene reflected the kind of defensive mechanism that managers involved in tight pennant races resort to at this time of year. The idea is to talk without saying anything inflammatory that might find its way onto the opposing team's bulletin board.

So instead of taking a chance of also striking out with Herzog on his team's final stop of the season in Los Angeles, we directed our questions to Red Schoendienst, who has a 32-year background with the Cardinals as a player, former manager and current all-around coach.

''If we win our division, it will be because our defense has stayed great and because we were able to bunch our hits with runners in scoring position,'' Schoendienst explained. ''We don't have much power and we almost never have what you'd call a big inning.

''Anytime we get a runner as far as second base with less than two outs and don't score him, we're in trouble,'' Red continued. ''But that doesn't mean that we can't win it all, only that we'll be doing it with fewer runs than most teams. Actually I like our chances.''

Schoendienst says the three teams the Cardinals have to outlast to win their division are Philadelphia, Montreal and Pittsburgh, the Pirates having come on strong during the second half of the year because of a vast improvement in their pitching.

''On paper the Phillies' chances are probably as good as ours, especially when Mike Schmidt is hitting with power and driving in a lot of runs,'' Red volunteered. ''Like all great hitters, when Schmidt gets into a groove, there is no set way to pitch to him. In fact, you know as long as Philadelphia has Mike hitting cleanup and Steve Carlton pitching every three or four days, they're never going to have a losing streak.

''Although Montreal is also a solid team, I'm not sure the Expos have played as well as they could or as well as they should,'' he continued. ''But I do know one thing: they wouldn't even be in the race at this point if they hadn't traded with the Texas Rangers for Al Oliver. The last time I looked Oliver was leading Montreal in just about every offensive category except home runs.

''The thing you have to like about Pittsburgh is the way they came back after so many injuries. While the Pirates' pitching isn't great, it's a lot better than most people thought it would be. Pittsburgh has four or five regulars who hit the ball particularly well, plus one of the league's top rookies in second baseman Johnny Ray. Tanner (Manager Chuck Tanner) also got a lot of mileage out of Lee Lacy in right field when Dave Parker got hurt.''

Getting back to St. Louis, unless outfielder George Hendrick turns hot in what remains of the season, the Cardinals (for the second year in a row) probably aren't going to have even one player who will reach the 20 mark in home runs.

''If you were a manager whose team played 81 of its games in Busch Stadium, where the ball doesn't carry that well, you'd be relying on speed and defense, too, instead of the long ball,'' Herzog said later. ''But that doesn't mean we're any less aggressive offensively, because we like to run and we're always looking for opportunities to take the extra base against opposing teams.''

Most scouts say that St. Louis has the best infield in the National League. The key, of course, is shortstop Ozzie Smith, who came over in a winter trade with San Diego, and has played like a man with four arms, jets in his spikes, and a foreknowledge of where the ball is going before it's hit.

Schoendienst, who played next to Cardinal shortstop Marty Marion in the mid- 1940s when Marion was called a Genuis on a Rock Pile as a way of letting out-of-towners know how great he was on a sun-baked infield, says that Smith is the best he's ever seen.

''Best on synthetic turf anyway,'' Red emphasized. ''I haven't seen Smith make a bad throw all year and he gets to everything that's hit on the ground. Basically Ozzie makes everything in the field look easy.''

While the Cardinals aren't bursting with 20-game winners, they do have a superb bullpen in Bruce Sutter (27 saves); Jim Kaat, who was born only minutes after Abner Doubleday; and Doug Bair, whose earned-run average is even better than Sutter's.

The starters also have their moments, as they showed this week when both rookie John Stuper and Joaquin Andujar shut out the Phillies (the former with help from Sutter) as the Cardinals won two out of three in Philadelphia to take a 1 1/2-game lead in the hectic NL East scramble.

The rest of the job, as Schoendienst says, will have to be done by a bunch of line-drive swingers who had better make sure they get their hits back-to-back.

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