Dodgers class of the majors as pennant races take shape

If Hollywood gossip columnists can live off the chat of the land, surely a sports colummist ought to be able to take home a day's pay for discussing this year's pennant races.

In the National League West, first-place Los Angeles continues to run several games ahead of the defending champion Atlanta Braves. But the Dodgers, who have been averaging more than an error a game, had better hope that someone invents a baseball soon with a handle on it.

The reason Los Angeles currently has the best won-lost record in baseball is its superb pitching staff, including a bullpen that has remained effective even without Steve Howe. However, don't count out the well-balanced Braves, who may again have the league's most valuable player in outfielder Dale Murphy.

Elsewhere in that division, the San Francisco Giants have stayed competitive on the strength of their pitching plus the power bat of Darrell Evans, who is piling up home runs at a rate equal to the career-high 41 he hit with Atlanta in 1973. Although the San Diego Padres haven't looked that good yet, Manager Dick Williams has seldom had all of his regulars available at the same time because of injuries. The Houston Astros have made a tremendous comeback after losing their first nine games.Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Reds continue to play the season for the benefit of the airlines.

In the National League East, the world champion St. Louis Cardinals suddenly become Little Leaguers whenever they face left-handed pitching. For example, against southpaws the 10 Redbirds with the most playing time are batting a combined .243, compared with .308 against right-handers. Based on what St. Louis has shown so far, the Montreal Expos may yet turn out to be the better team.

Philadelphia, one of the top pre-season contenders, has been having all sorts of problems. The Phillies, who aren't hitting much as a team, lost 16 of 21 games during one recent stretch. The front office has begun to question some of Manager Pat Corrales's moves, including ones involving his handling of the press. And even Pete Rose has been complaining about Corrales's new system of giving Pete days off that he says he neither wants nor needs.

The Chicago Cubs, who have been on a tear recently, helped themselves when they dealt with the Phillies to obtain veteran right-hander Dick Ruthven, who was a 17-game winner in 1980 and who started 1983 with an even 100 major league victories. But it's always hard to know whether the Cubs are serious or only trying on different personalities before going back to one of their Three Stooges routines.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have extended Manager Chuck Tanner's present contract three years past 1984. However, what Tanner really needs to escape the NL East cellar is more front-line pitching. The New York Mets, more formidable since they acquired a solid RBI hitter in Keith Hernandez, still have players using training wheels at several positions.

In the American League West, the division-leading California Angels continue to live by their offense and wonder why so many of their pitchers keep making the club's disabled list. But with starters Bruce Kison and Geoff Zahn due back soon, things should be looking up.

So far, California has stayed ahead of both the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers. Kansas City, hard-hit by injuries, has turned Manager Dick Howser into a juggler. If he ever gets the chance to fill out the lineup card the way he'd like, and has George Brett at 100 percent, the Royals should be in it all the way.

The Rangers, who keep winning games they aren't supposed to win, have the best pitching staff in the American League, but are next to last in hitting. Few feel that Texas has the depth to stay with California and Kansas City over a 162 -game schedule.

Baseball people have been watching Oakland, waiting to see what Manager Steve Boros's computer spits out in the way of changes. But even with all those printouts the A's still look like a .500 team, much like the Chicago White Sox. So far, Chicago's pitching has been a disappointment. While there are some kids worth watching at Minnesota and Seattle, both of these teams could lose between 90 and 100 games.

In the American League East, it has become a pitchers' battle between Baltimore and Toronto, although no one is overlooking Detroit either. Since the Orioles have been in tough pennant races before and the Blue Jays haven't, the edge has to go to Baltimore at this point.

Even with all that Billy Martin turbulence in New York, it's much too early to quit on the Yankees, particularly since they got pitcher Matt Keough from Oakland. While Boston might not be worth taking seriously as a team, Manager Ralph Houk is a man who could give lessons on running a pitching staff and a ball game.

The Milwaukee Brewers, torpedoed by a mound corps that may not produce even one 15-game winner, continue to be interesting because of their power hitters and the acrobatics of shortstop Robin Yount. In Cleveland, the Indians have canceled their pennant reservations again and are already thinking about next year.

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