Surging Dale Murphy could repeat as National League MVP

Whenever opposing pitchers have to face Dale Murphy of the Atlanta Braves in a clutch-hitting situation, meaning with the tying or winning runs on base, they often appear reluctant to throw the ball.

Murphy's consistency, his ability to hit the ball almost anywhere it's pitched and still maintain his power, does that to people.

Usually if there are two outs and first base is open - let's face it any time in a clutch situation when there are two outs and first base is open - opposing managers order last year's National League Most Valuable Player walked. Obviously they would rather take their chances with someone else.

When Murphy struggled briefly at the plate around mid-season at a time when Montreal's Andre Dawson was having a hot streak, Dale's 1983 MVP credentials seemed a little run down at the heels. If it had been anyone but Murphy, probably nobody would have noticed. But when the key man in your lineup stops hitting, it begins to show in the won-lost column.

However, if Atlanta's front office was worried, its concern did not extend to Braves' Manager Joe Torre, who holds the reins on Murphy the way you would on a well-disciplined horse. Aside from offering an occasional bit of advice about what opposing pitchers like to throw in certain situations, Joe has allowed Dale to be pretty much his own man.

''Hitters are always slipping in and out of grooves,'' explained Torre, a former National League batting champion who hit .363 with the 197l St. Louis Cardinals. ''Like a lot of guys, as soon as Dale stopped trying so hard and relaxed at the plate, he got his rhythm back.

''One of the reasons we've done so well this year is because Murphy and Horner (Joe meant slugger Bob Horner who was sidelined for the season on July 15 after breaking a wrist) used to carry us when no one else was hitting,'' Torre continued. ''Without Horner behind him, Murphy isn't getting nearly as many good pitches to hit. Yet Dale's home run and RBI production have continued to climb anyway, which shows you how much of a competitor he is.''

Going to baseball's instant cliche rack for a moment, Murphy is a Gentle Giant. He is 6ft., 5in. of muscle who doesn't smoke or drink, signs autographs willingly, and even has time for newspapermen. He also likes kids, maybe because he's got three of his own.

Whenever Dale is asked about winning last year's MVP title, he always claims he couldn't have done it without his teammates. While a lot of players have said that before Murphy, he might be the first one who actually means it. And there is some truth in the feeling that he might not have gotten the votes he needed if Atlanta hadn't finished first in its division.

Although some people think you are putting them on when you say that Murphy's home runs are often unlike those of other sluggers, it's true. Rather than the sharp line drive that travels like a rocket into the bleachers, Dale's home runs are often looped to the opposite field.

In fact, of the right-handed hitting slugger's first 19 homers this year, all but 4 were hit to center or right field. Even if Dale gets only a piece of the ball, he still has enough power in his arms, hips, and legs to ride it out of the park. Opposing pitchers who used to think they could nullify his power by throwing outside now know differently.

If Murphy, who was the Braves' first-round selection in baseball's 1974 free-agent draft, comes across like someone who entered the game prepackaged as an outfielder and with a master's degree in hitting, forget it.

Atlanta originally signed him as a catcher, played him at that position all through his minor league career, and didn't discover its mistake until Dale came up to the Braves to stay in 1978.

Murphy might have made it behind the plate if he hadn't developed a mental block about his throwing. He had the rifle-arm all right, except that he could never seem to release the ball in time, and after a while had trouble convincing himself that he could throw it at all. Consequently opposing players who ordinarily wouldn't run to get out of the way of a bus, were stealing second base on him.

The Braves solved Murphy's problem by switching him to center field, but not before they also tried him at first base. Yet where Dale probably would have never been more than an average infielder he has become an All-Star in the outfield.

As for Murphy's hitting, he worked long and hard at learning the strengths and weaknesses of opposing pitchers until now they are the ones doing the guessing. At this point, Dale's place among the league leaders once again this year in batting average, home runs, and RBIs, coupled with his clutch hitting throughout August and September, will probably win him his second consecutive MVP award.

Of course, Murphy does have one weakness which his teammates good naturedly never let him forget; Dale never saw a doughnut he didn't like!

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