Surprising Cubs ride hot bats, improved pitching to first place

Normally the Chicago Cubs are National League East contenders only in spring training, before the hard facts of life have begun to take their toll and fantasy turns to reality.

The 1984 Cubs, however, are heading toward June breathing the heady air of first place. And when that Toddlin' Town's new heroes recently capped a six-game winning streak with a doubleheader sweep over the Atlanta Braves, State Street, that great street, suddenly turned into an elongated dance hall.

Whether they can keep it up, of course, remains to be seen. The last time the Cubs made a really sustained run at a division title was in 1969, when they eventually lost out to the New York Mets. And they haven't had a taste of the real thing since 1945, the date of their most recent World Series appearance in which the Detroit Tigers beat them in seven games.

Since then, the Cubs have changed managers as often as the counterman in an all-night truck stop replaces ketchup bottles. Chicago has had 17 field leaders since 1945, if you include Charlie Grimm's two terms, and 21 if you also include the years when former owner Philip K. Wrigley rotated four coaches as head man on a regular basis.

Perhaps no team in baseball has fans who are more patient, forgiving, and knowledgeable than those who spin the turnstiles at Wrigley Field. Usually they have to get their shouting in early, if at all. But this year the Cubs just could make it interesting if not downright miserable all year for perennial powers Philadelphia, Montreal, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh.

First baseman Leon Durham, off to a great start in which he ranks well up among the league leaders in batting, home runs, and RBIs, heads a solid lineup. Catcher Jody Davis and third baseman Roy Cey are also swinging power bats, while second baseman Ryne Sandberg and outfielder Bob Dernier are up there with Durham among the leading hitters.

Although the pitching is still suspect over a full season, it has obviously improved with the arrival of Scott Sanderson from Montreal; the return of Rick Reuschel, who due to injuries hadn't pitched regularly since 1980; and the increased maturity of Steve Trout, the only left-hander on the squad. It also seems likely that Chuck Rainey, the club's leading winner last year at 14-13, will eventually find himself after a slow start.

Mound depth was evident this spring too when injuries hit the starters and the bullpen came to the rescue. That means mostly Lee Smith (29 saves last year); former Baltimore Oriole Tim Stoddard, who was cut during spring training by Oakland; and veteran Warren Brusstar.

''During the 15 years I was in the Baltimore organization as a coach, we always made it a point to take care of our pitching first,'' explained Manager Jim Frey, who took Kansas City to the 1980 World Series. ''Of course I want all the hitting and defense I can get, too. But in order to win those 2-1 and 3-2 ball games, you've got to have major league arms.

''This is something (General Manager) Dallas Green and I agree on, and we're still looking to trade for that one more starter who can win consistently for us. Twice in spring training we came close to making deals that would have helped our pitching. But each time there was a last-minute pullout by the other side. In the meantime, we've got a lot of mileage out of a lot of different pitchers.''

While Frey is pleased with his club's start, wild or even modest predictions are not his thing. You can see he is managing the team like a contender, though , by the way he anticipates situations; the quickness with which he spots a pitcher in trouble; and his clever use of pinch-hitters.

Frey is not a strict believer in platooning on a regular basis (he prefers a set lineup), but he does think that most of today's players, because of the travel pressure, need a certain number of days off during the season. So while Jim might hesitate to rest his double play combination of Sandberg and shortstop Larry Bowa, no such rule applies elsewhere - especially in his well-stocked outfield.

All that outfield depth was one reason Durham was moved to first base even before the Cubs traded with the Phillies for Dernier and Gary Matthews in a move aimed at tightening their defense. With Matthews in left and Dernier in center, right field has become a revolving door for the varied talents of Keith Moreland (power); Mel Hall (average); and rookie Henry Cotto (speed). First baseman Bill Buckner, a former NL batting champion, has been reduced to a spear carrier whose future may lie as a designated hitter in the American League.

To be honest, Chicago probably needs a few more players (not necessarily all regulars, but at least one would have to be a dependable pitcher), to get the establishment's endorsement as a pennant contender. But don't tell that to a Cubbies' fan unless you are prepared to argue the point into the middle of next week.

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