National League forecast: Dodgers glitter, Rose may ignite Expos

Part of baseball's fascination, as Yogi Berra says, is that it's never over 'til it's over. Probably the best example occurred in 1914, when the ''Miracle'' Boston Braves came from last place on July 4th to win the National League pennant. And who is to say that something similar can't happen once again this year?

In the NL East, Pete Rose is expected to provide the under-fire leadership that was missing last year when Montreal finished eight games behind Philadelphia. Maybe Rose is the answer, because the Phillies never won a World Series until he got there and Cincinnati hasn't won one since he left. But manager Bill Virdon says the Expos' third-place finish was due more to weaknesses at shortstop and in the bullpen - holes he hopes to fill by playing rookie Argenis Salazar at short and having Gary Lucas (17 saves in '83 with San Diego) on hand for late relief.

While Philadelphia's defending champions obviously are going to have something to say about this race, if only because of their Steve Carlton-John Denny anchored pitching staff, the Phillies must do it without Rose, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez. Manager Paul Owens's answer to this loss of veteran manpower is that the '84 team, with younger players moving into their spots, will actually have more power and speed.

Pittsburgh, which always seems to finish strongly, also merits consideration. While the Pirates may occasionally miss the power bat of Dave Parker, they are not exactly devoid of outstanding hitters, including NL batting champion Bill Madlock. Manager Chuck Tanner also has a pitching staff that he handles well, a superb catcher in Tony Pena, and one of the best late-inning relievers in the game in Kent Tekulve.

The 1982 world champion St. Louis Cardinals, who disappointed last year when their pitching fell apart (Joaquin Andujar down from 16 wins to 6; Bob Forsch down from 15 to 10), are hard to figure. Despite limited power, they were outscored by only four NL teams last season. If this division can be considered to have a dark horse, St. Louis is it.

The Chicago Cubs have a new manager in Jim Frey, a set infield in Bill Buckner, Ryne Sandberg, Ron Cey, and Larry Bowa, plus a revamped outfield bolstered by the acquisition of Gary Matthews and speedster Bob Dernier from Philadelphia in a late spring training trade. Improvement is the ticket here, but please don't mention pennants.

No pitcher is going to like working to the New York Mets' third, fourth, and fifth hitters, meaning Keith Hernandez, George Foster, and Daryl Strawberry. This is a power line that will probably deliver 70 to 90 home runs. Unfortunately, new manager Dave Johnson, despite his rhetoric, doesn't have the pitching or defense to complement this trio.

In the NL West folks are likely to see another title for Los Angeles, with the equivalent of six starters, all of whom have won consistently at the big league level. One question mark is the bullpen, where Tom Niedenfuer (11 saves plus a 1.90 ERA last year) could be outstanding, but where former Met left-hander Carlos Diaz will have to go some to match the figures of the drug-suspended Steve Howe.

Much of the tendency to rank Atlanta at least equal to L.A. evaporated when pitcher Pascual Perez was imprisoned in the Dominican Republic on drug charges. It is possible that Perez, who won 15 games last year and has the potential to win 20, may not play at all in 1984. However, the Braves have an awesome 1-2 batting punch in MVP center fielder Dale Murphy and third baseman Bob Horner.

With the addition of free agent relief pitcher Goose Gossage, San Diego is thoroughly convinced it now has a legitimate shot at a title. However, the Yankees had Gossage last season and finished third, and there are reports that Goose has lost a few inches off his fastball. To win, the Padres must also get strong seasons from first baseman Steve Garvey, new third base acquisition Graig Nettles, and shortstop Garry Templeton, who lost his superstar rating three years ago.

Houston has the pitching to pull an upset but maybe not quite enough of everything else. The Astros, who hit only 26 homers last season in the Dome, always seem to be scratching for runs.

Only five games separated San Francisco from last-place Cincinnati in 1983, and that was when slugger Darrell Evans was still there. In hopes of filling the gap caused by Evans's departure to Detroit, the Giants have acquired former NL batting champion Al Oliver in a trade with the Expos and claimed ex-Dodger outfielder Dusty Baker off the waiver list.

Cincinnati, which has a new manager in Vern Rapp and a new power hitter in ex-Pirate Dave Parker, isn't really expected to improve that much.

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