Astros lifting off; Blue Jays in late bid

First baseman Glenn Davis is what the new-look 1986 Houston Astros are all about: aggressive, durable, and able to drive in runs when it means something. This is a team that literally never gives up, as shown by the 19 times it has won games in its final turn at bat this season. Davis has so much natural skill and power that he is even considered a home run threat in the Astrodome, where, because of the air conditioning, balls often seem to carry like manhole covers. Don't mention this within earshot of New York's Shea Stadium, but there are even those who think that Davis and Mets catcher Gary Carter will run 1-2 in this year's National League Most Valuable Player race.

The Astros have opened up what looks like a fairly safe lead in the NL West, but few people outside Houston expect them to get by the Mets in the playoffs. Yet Los Angeles coach Monty Basgall, who has been around long enough not to engage in wild speculation, thinks Houston has a real chance against New York if it can get two well-pitched games from veteran Nolan Ryan.

This would not be the Ryan who has twice turned up on the disabled list this year, but the one who twice in his career has pitched 26 complete games in the same season, not to mention his five career no-hitters and all-time strikeout record. Anyway, when Nolan is rarin' to go, his fastball has been known to look like an M&M candy to those trying to make contact with it.

The case for the Astros also assumes that Mike Scott can win at least one of his two projected playoff starts, and that either Bob Knepper or someone in the bullpen, where Dave Smith is king, can win the other.

``Pitching is the reason we've been a contender all year, and if we eventually win our division, pitching will be the chief reason,'' says rookie manager Hal Lanier, who previously had five years as a Cardinal coach under Whitey Herzog. ``I have friends on other teams who keep telling me what good balance we have and what am I going to do, disagree with them? Not on your life.

``But without the pitching, the other stuff loses a lot of its value. You've got to have four reliable starters to make it all the way to the top and at least two guys who can close for you coming out of the bullpen.''

In addition to Scott and Ryan, Houston has also gotten great consistency from Knepper and rookies Jim Deshaies and Charlie Kerfeld, the latter a key addition to the bullpen. Now a late-season trade with Milwaukee has added veteran starter Danny Darwin to this group.

While some observers think Houston doesn't have the offense to win a playoff or World Series, Lanier makes it clear he believes there's enough firepower there when you take the whole picture into consideration.

``We don't blow people away,'' he says. ``Teams that play in the Astrodome seldom do. But with the right mix of pitching you can overcome just about anything.''

One thing Lanier won't have to look too hard for is big-game expertise. Hal himself has been through two sets of playoffs and World Series with St. Louis. And one of his coaches is all-time postseason king Yogi Berra, who has already appeared in 21 World Series -- 14 as a player, 2 as a manager, and 5 as a coach. Mike Schmidt is Mr. Consistency

Mike Schmidt leads the National League in home runs again and is approaching 500 career round-trippers, but the thing his peers probably admire most about him is his consistency -- both at bat and in the field. The veteran Philadelphia slugger has hit 30 or more home runs 11 times and is a sure thing to make it 12 this year. He has also been recognized as the league's best third baseman for most of his 14 seasons, as shown by the nine Gold Gloves he has accumulated.

Mike's favorite home run victims over the years have been the Chicago Cubs. His most productive home run month has been August, the time when most players will tell you they have difficulty battling fatigue.

Asked his secret, Schmidt replied, ``I wouldn't have any idea, because there is no set way to play this game. What works for one guy won't necessarily work for another. I do have one set rule, though. I try to stay out of slumps by working to hit the ball hard twice a game. If I do that, I know I'm probably going to get at least one hit. The tough part for a hitter is trying to get started again after you've gone 1-for-15 or 2-for-30.'' Elsewhere in the major leagues

The Toronto Blue Jays, who have been struggling all season to get back the magic that helped them win 99 games in 1985, are making a run at the first-place Red Sox in the American League East. It's what happens sometimes when a good ball club sudddenly begins winning with pitching one day and hitting the next, and taking advantage of all the breaks along the way.

The San Diego Padres are so high on catcher Benito Santiago that they will probably try to get a starting pitcher or a front-line outfielder for veteran backstop Terry Kennedy during the winter. Philadelphia is among the teams interested in Kennedy. Phillies catchers threw out only 48 runners in their first 204 tries this season.

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