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Imagine a pennant race in which a team with a 2½-game lead leaves in August on an 11-game road trip to Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Montreal, loses eight games and comes home still halt a game ahead. That happened to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1970 and speaks volumes about the kind of division the National League East was. "I think," says Pirate slugger Willie Stargell, "we will not get away with it this time."

Maybe not, but one thing certain about the National League East today is that it is more bunched than ever. The Phillies, for instance, are at last pushing to join the leaders, and they have extra incentives galore: new cherry-red shoes; the league's latest and largest ball park, Veterans Stadium (capacity 56,371); a huge scoreboard featuring the team's newest symbols, Philadelphia Phil and Philadelphia Phyllis; and a history of awful ineptitude. Had not the 1950 Whiz Kids messed up and won a pennant on the last day, the Phillies would be entering their 55th year without a glimmer of success. "The new park is bound to help us," says Manager Frank Lucchesi. "I dropped by it during the winter and even the typists were typing faster."

Nobody expects the Phillies to take the division title. But they are sentimental favorites, at least in Philadelphia. The club suffered so many injuries in 1970 that it might have been more appropriate to field nine Ace bandages than a team. But the Phillies had grit and the fans cheered them for it. Now, at a time when money is supposed to be tight, the Phillies are headed for an opening-day sellout.

From a pure baseball standpoint, the team is an uneasy combination of old and young and has many lineup gaps. But none of them are in the pitching staff, assuming that Jim Bunning continues to get younger every year. At 39, Bunning is the oldest starting pitcher in the big leagues—he needs only seven strikeouts to pass Cy Young as the second greatest strikeout pitcher of all time—and he is still effective. Joining him are Barry Lersch, Rick Wise and Chris Short. Lersch, 26, came on strong at the end of last season and had an ERA of 3.00 as a starter. This followed what a Philadelphia press release called a "parole" from the bullpen. Wise, still only 25, has been the team's biggest winner for two seasons. For strong relief there are Dick Selma and Joe Hoerner.

The Phillie infield is three parts kids and one part Deron Johnson. Don Money hit .295 last season—a jump of 66 points—and became recognized as one of baseball's better third basemen. Larry Bowa is among the best defensive shortstops in the league and overcame a terrible April to hit .250 and steal 24 bases. Denny Doyle plays second despite a .208 year. "I am not going to quit on him," says Lucchesi, "because we haven't seen the real Denny Doyle as yet." He has seen the real Deron Johnson and approves. Johnson knocked in 93 runs with 27 homers in 1970.

The outfield should be much stronger if Roger Freed, acquired from Baltimore this winter, can hit big-league pitching. With Rochester Freed smashed 24 homers, averaged .334 and knocked in 130 runs in 138 games. The Phillies won 10 more games in 1970 than they did in 1969. A similar improvement in the coming season could be interesting—very interesting.

The New York Mets, who did not perform very well in 1970, spent the winter in meditation instead of Las Vegas. It is hoped this desire not to let the chips fall where they may will help refurbish the splendid reputations of the 1969 Mets. Not that the 1970 team was all that tarnished. The pitchers, for instance, still had the best ERA in the league (3.45). Despite a losing 10-14 record, Jim McAndrew won many of his games when they meant the most to the club. Tom Seaver put together six-and nine-game winning streaks. The disappointments were Jerry Koosman (12-7), who threw only five complete games, Gary Gentry (9-9) and Nolan Ryan (7-11). It is now or never for the latter two, and they are working diligently to make it now.

Cleon Jones, whose good years coincide with fast starts, was cool in the early going last season, but the year was hardly a writeoff with a .277 average and 63 RBIs. Centerfielder Tommie Agee, with 24 homers, 75 RBIs and a .286 average, did even better than Jones despite suffering cartilage damage in his left knee. He is hoping his knee holds up and his strikeouts (156) are held down. The infield is solid and if First Baseman Donn Clendenon can come close to last year's performance (in 121 games he batted home 97 runs), the Mets can start brushing up those old Las Vegas acts.

Were it not for a history of one-shot champions—the Pirates have not won consecutive titles since 1902-03—Pittsburgh would have to be considered the logical favorite to win in '71. But also militating against the Pirates is last season's history. They took their division with only 89 victories, which was 11 fewer than when New York won the year before. Their victims were from their own division—against the Cubs, Mets, Cards and Phils they were 48-24—and 20 of their wins were by one run. A little push the other way and the Pirates could be awash in their own Three Rivers.

Oh, not really awash, says Danny Murtaugh, the (now) imperturbable man who manages Pittsburgh. He likes his newest club at this same early stage more than the one that finished on top last year. Pitching has been added by trades for Bob Johnson of Kansas City, who struck out more hitters than any American League righthander and worked more innings in 1970 than any Pirate, and Nelson Briles, who has shucked his "no-windup" delivery in an attempt to become the 19-game winner he was before the pitching mound was lowered two years ago. "Sometimes a trade is the best thing for a ballplayer because it makes him take stock of himself," says Briles. The team is also counting on Dave Giusti, whose superb relieving, especially before the All-Star break, kept the Pirates' pitching in balance, and Jim Grant, who arrived from the Oakland A's late last summer, which was just in time.

With Forbes Field now but a memory, powerful Willie Stargell, who hit seven of the 18 longest homers ever projected over the right-field roof there, should find the shorter reaches of Three Rivers Stadium far more approachable. And now more Pirate power can come from Bob Robertson, Al Oliver, Catcher Manny Sanguillen and maybe Richie Hebner, who was hitting long drives this spring. The ever-aching Roberto Clemente can be counted on to hit .300. Murtaugh hopes he can also be counted on to appear in more games than last year (108).

Position for position, as has been noted too often in recent years, the Chicago Cubs are the best team in the National League. It is probably more to the point that, position for position, they are the league's most frustrating team. Maybe, just because nobody is really expecting it this time, they might win the pennant their fans have dreamed of since 1945. Manager Leo Durocher would like that. It has been rumored that the Cubs' next stumble will be their last under Durocher.

Because of damaged cartilage in his left knee last year, Catcher Randy Hundley appeared in only 73 games. In those games, however, Chicago's winning percentage was .612. (Pittsburgh's for the season was .549.) "I hit well when I came back from the injury," Hundley says, "but it caught up to me in September. It's tough recovering from knee surgery."

Ron Santo (.267, 114 RBIs) led the team through the final 22 games with a .375 average. Don Kessinger at shortstop and Glenn Beckert at second give the Cubs the strongest double-play combination in the division and Durocher has many options at first base and in the outfield, with Joe Pepitone, Jim Hickman and Ernie Banks being the key figures. He has but one option with Billy Williams in left. Play him. Williams' 1970 season was the sort that people write ballads about: first in the league in runs scored (137) and total bases (373); tied for first in number of hits (205); second in homers (42) and RBIs (129). It seems too much to ask for that kind of thing again, but one look at his velvet swing and it is hard to imagine him not having another brilliant season.

Chicago picked up Milt Pappas from Atlanta in late June. He ended up 12-10, had the Cubs' best ERA and was the only National League pitcher to shut out the Cincinnati Reds. In the past Pappas has not been much of a man for finishing games, and it is this little quirk that could unsettle Chicago's four-starter rotation. The front three—Ferguson Jenkins, Ken Holtzman and Bill Hands—is the best in the division, with 115 victories over the last two seasons. Jenkins now has had four consecutive years as a 20-game winner, but in 1970 he also lost a lot of games. Durocher believes this was caused by overwork and is counting on Pappas to take the pressure off Jenkins by allowing him to start fewer games.

Late last year St. Louis cost the Cubs a good chance of winning the East Division by beating Chicago in a doubleheader by identical scores, 2-1. It was the highlight of an otherwise terrible season in which the Cards, who won 101 games in 1967, could manage only 76 wins three years later. Busch Stadium has now become the Greyhound station of baseball, with people coming and going at a frenetic pace. Manager Red Schoendienst needs 49 days to surpass Branch Rickey's record of tenure as a Cardinal manager and he will probably make that. But a poor start could find him looking for a bus in no time.

The Cards still have certain elements of class. There is no finer pitcher in the game than Bob Gibson, few more electrifying players than Lou Brock, and Joe Torre's 203 hits and .325 average in 1970 were remarkable tributes to what a man can do when he goes on a diet. Jerry Reuss is developing into a good pitcher and Steve Carlton, a 19-game loser after his spring holdout last season, can become a winner again if his mental approach catches up with his physical qualities.

The Cardinals are trying to stress pitching, speed and defense and they at least have speed. Ted Sizemore, the key man in the trade that sent Richie Allen to Los Angeles, is a good infielder but he hit only one home run in 1970, compared to Allen's 34. Matty Alou was picked up from the Pirates and is expected to spray hits all around the St. Louis AstroTurf, as will the opposition, when Alou joins Brock and Jose Cardenal in the outfield. The Cardinal bullpen, a disaster last year, might be improved with Frank Linzy ready for a full season and Moe Drabowsky switching leagues.

Last year Gene Mauch's announced goal for the Montreal Expos was to "Win 70 in '70." Despite a 1-10 start and an 11-game losing streak in May-June, Montreal won 73 games. So in '71 the rhyme has been upped by 11. "We'll make a run at 81," says Mauch, who must have Ernie Banks writing his lines. Should Montreal win 81 it will have a fine season and Jarry Park will be even more fun than it was last year when the Expos pulled in 1,424,683 people.

The Expos will have, presumably, a healthy Carl Morton all this year. Last season he was out of the starting rotation for the first month and still won 18 games. They should also have more offense at second base with the arrival of Ron Hunt from San Francisco. Rusty Staub (30 homers) and Bob Bailey (26) give Montreal power. But pitching remains the big problem. It tends to melt along with the spring snows.