Throw out Houston's 0-9 start in April and the Astros suddenly have the look of pennant contenders. Rookie Manager Bob Lillis has been making it work with a combination of speed, pitching, and defense, plus an offense that makes up in timeliness whatever it may lack in brute force.
Even though shortstop Dickie Thon and third baseman Phil Garner aren't usually thought of as legitimate power threats, for instance, Lillis has been getting by with them in the No. 3 and 4 spots in the lineup - and so far opposing pitchers haven't been able to deal with either one in the clutch. Thon, who had never hit more than three home runs in any of his four previous major league seasons, is already in double figures.
However, the Astros' best individual performance this year probably belongs to pitcher Nolan Ryan, who had won eight straight games before the New York Mets finally beat him. In Ryan's first six starts after coming off the disabled list in June (all complete games), Nolan didn't permit more than two runs or five hits in any of them. How National League President Chub Fenney and Manager Whitey Herzog could have failed to name Ryan to this season's All-Star squad is one of the great mysteries of 1983.
Meanwhile Lillis, who reacted emotionally like a stock trader in a sea of financial disasters when Houston was losing, is certain to get a ton of media votes as National League Manager of the Year - especially if the Astros continue the fine play which has carried them into third place in the West Division at this point.
Should Lillis win the award, he would wind up beating out some pretty good people, including Manager Joe Torre of the Atlanta Braves and Chuck Tanner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Torre, a former big league catcher who finished his career at third base, seems to have a feel for knowing just when to pull a pitcher who is about to be bombed by the opposition. Tanner, whose Pirates have the worst earned-run average of any pitching staff in the National League, nevertheless has accomplished wonders so far with a rotation of Rick Rhoden, Larry McWilliams, and John Candelaria, plus a lot of guys named Joe.
Over in the American League, several managers have done outstanding jobs so far including Doug Rader of the Texas Rangers, Tony LaRussa of the Chicago White Sox, John McNamara of the California Angels, Bobby Cox of the Toronto Blue Jays, Sparky Anderson of the Detroit Tigers, and Harvey Kuenn of the Milwaukee Brewers. Kuenn became a certified genius on June 28 when, after experimenting all season with Gorman Thomas, Ted Simmons, and Ben Oglivie as his No. 4 hitters , he suddenly gave the job to Cecil Cooper. Since moving into the cleanup spot, Cooper has batted .366, hit six home runs, and taken over the RBI lead in the American League. During that same stretch the Brewers have won 15 games and lost only four. Rose's year-long bat slump worries Phils
While they aren't making a federal case of it, reports continue to surface that the Philadelphia Phillies aren't quite sure what they want to do about the hitting problems of 42-year-old outfielder-first baseman Pete Rose. Since the July 1982 All-Star Game through midseason of this year, Rose has hit under .250. The word is that opposing pitchers are challenging him with inside fastballs that he can no longer get around on for base hits. In one late May-early June stretch this year Pete went 0 for 20 at the plate, an unusually long dry spell for him, although he claims he was meeting the ball well. That slump resulted in Pete being benched as a starter for nine games.
Considering the heftiness of Rose's salary, Philadelphia may no longer want to pay Pete that kind of money, even though he still has a mathematical chance of catching Ty Cobb's all-time base hit record of 4,191 next season. There's talk that the Phillies might even release him. Although several teams in Japan would probably court bankruptcy to sign Rose, Pete would never go there as long as Cobb's record dangles in front of him like a carrot on a stick. If Philadelphia does cut him loose, look for Yankee owner George Steinbrenner to come to the rescue. On Yankee pitching, Braves' platooning
* Quietly, which is not his way, Manager Billy Martin's New York Yankees have been making a consistent run at the division leaders in the American League East. Improved pitching is one of the main reasons, with an unexpected boost coming from rookie left-hander Ray Fontenot, whose ERA is under two per game.
* The Atlanta Braves, who have been platooning left-handed-hitting Chris Chambliss and right-handed-hitting Bob Watson at first base, may have discovered the Fountain of Youth. The two veterans have combined so far for 76 runs-batted-in as starters. As pinch hitters, they are 10 for 22 with 13 RBI.
* ''What we need more than anything else,'' said second baseman Bobby Grich of the California Angels, ''is a stopper in our bullpen the quality of Goose Gossage or Bruce Sutter. If we'd had a guy like that a year ago, we'd have led our division by 18 games, instead of struggling to win by 3. Even though Luis Sanchez and Mike Witt have pitched their hearts out for us all season in relief, they're just not in the class of those other two guys.''