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Original Issue

tune it up and step on the gas: national league west

The competitors have been tinkering resolutely, replacing worn-out parts, overhauling tired motors, installing steel-belted radials, but the Big Red Machine still looks like the best-engineered vehicle on this road. One thing that stands between it and another victorious drive home is a history of unplanned obsolescence. The Reds have not been able to put two good models back to back since 1939-40. In 1970 they won, then fell to fourth in '71. They dare not look back now, for the traffic could be much heavier this trip.

The Reds are not lacking in motivation. They desperately want to vindicate themselves for the World Series loss to Oakland, a team they foolishly underestimated. "Last year all I wanted was to get into the Series," says Joe Morgan, who had a brilliant season at second base. "This year I want to beat Oakland. I'd really enjoy that." Now if the A's will only cooperate.

The Reds have all the working parts once again, although some are not functioning quite as efficiently. Catcher Johnny Bench, who won his second Most Valuable Player award after hitting 40 home runs and driving in 125 runs, had a benign lesion removed from his lung in mid-December and may not be his usual sturdy self in the early going. "I'll catch as much as Sparky Anderson wants me to," he says, "but if he wants to put me at other positions once in a while to give me a little breather, that's fine, too."

Pitcher Gary Nolan won 15 games a year ago, but 13 of the wins were before the All-Star break. A muscle irritation in his right shoulder limited him to only six starts for the remainder of the season and he is not being included in the starting rotation. But in Roger Nelson, a righthander who came to the Reds from Kansas City along with Outfielder Richie Scheinblum for Wayne Simpson and Outfielder Hal McRae, Anderson has some insurance. Nelson had an ERA of 2.08 with Kansas City and he won 11 games, although he did not make his first start until June 30. He should fit comfortably into the starting rotation, along with Jim McGlothlin, Jack Billingham, Don Gullett and Ross Grimsley. They are ably supported by Relievers Tom Hall, Clay Carroll and Pedro Borbon.

Scheinblum may have trouble breaking into an outfield now occupied by Pete Rose, Bobby Tolan and Cesar Geronimo, even though Richie was a .300 hitter last year in the American League, where there are not many. All in all, the Reds look well prepared for another rewarding trip.

The Houston Astros should tailgate them along the way. They have moved Outfielder Bob Watson to catcher to make room in left for Tommy Agee, acquired from the Mets. Watson, who hit .312 last year, "Can turn this club around," says Manager Leo Durocher. "If he can catch, I can play Agee in left. This will give me a better defensive outfield with more speed and a better arm and it'll give me a powerful hitter [Agee] leading off." Agee should be happier in the Astrodome, too. He had complained of slippery wet grass at Shea Stadium. He won't have that excuse now.

The Astros have no shortage of hitters, with Cesar Cedeno (.320, 22 home runs, 82 RBIs) in center, Jimmy Wynn (.273, 24, 90) in right, Lee May (.284, 29, 98) on first and Doug Rader (.237, 22, 90) at third.

Durocher also plans to change from a five-to a four-man pitching rotation on the theory that more work will make better pitchers of Don Wilson, Larry Dierker, Jerry Reuss and, especially, Dave Roberts. Roberts pitched 78 fewer innings last year than he did in 1971 for San Diego and he apparently wasted away from disuse, winning only 12 with the second-place Astros after winning 14 with the lamentable Padres. Roberts' old manager, Preston Gomez, is now a Houston coach, and it was he who advised Durocher that "You gotta pitch this fellow every four days and just keep pushing him."

Atlanta may be pushing the Astros and the Reds before the season is too far along. The Braves were the busiest tinkerers of all in the off-season, negotiating blockbuster trades for the pitching help they have needed for so long. In addition to Pat Dobson and Roric Harrison from Baltimore, the Braves got Gary Gentry and Danny Frisella from the Mets and Jim Panther from the Texas Rangers, and they exchanged Pat Jarvis for Carl Morton of Montreal.

All this wheeling and dealing should bring some improvement to the deplorable pitching statistics of last year, when the Braves had a group ERA of 4.27 and served up 155 home runs. Dobson, a onetime 20-game winner, is probably the key man, although Gentry, Morton or Harrison could also wind up in the starting rotation along with Phil Niekro (16-12) and Ron Reed (11-15). Ex-Oriole Dave Johnson, who squabbled with Manager Earl Weaver through much of last season and was, consequently, in and out of the lineup, could become the cement in a porous infield. He hit only .221 during the time of his travail, but Manager Eddie Mathews is convinced he is "the kind of ballplayer who can bounce back."

Henry Aaron is 39 years old and 42 home runs away from breaking Babe Ruth's career record. He thinks he can get there faster playing right field, so the Braves must now find somebody to play first base. Mike Lum, although he is a mediocre hitter, is one candidate. Third Baseman Darrell Evans is another. Aaron is giving himself only two more years to catch Ruth, reasoning: "If I can't hit 42 home runs in two years, I ain't never gonna hit them."

The Dodgers, who are always looking for a home-run hitter and rarely finding one, seem to be in the same fix again, although Manager Walter Alston insists his team "can fool you a little bit. We'll hold our own by hitting a few here and there." Ken McMullen, who came to Los Angeles from neighboring Anaheim with Andy Messersmith in the big Frank Robinson trade, has been known to hit a few here and there, and at the least he should help clean up the mess at third base. Dodger third basemen committed 53 errors last year, or one every 10 chances. Bill Russell at shortstop was not exactly a Marty Marion out there either, leading the league with 34 errors. Russell was still bobbling a few in spring training, but the Dodgers assure skeptics that he will become a major league shortstop, Pitcher Claude Osteen going so far as to say "a super shortstop."

Russell can hit a little (.272) and so can First Baseman Bill Buckner (.319) and the veteran Willie Davis (.289), who credits his newfound consistency to his conversion to Buddhism. "It has to do with the way you apply yourself," he says. "You don't waste time."

But what the Dodgers still do best is pitch, and starting along with Messersmith will be Osteen (20-11), Don Sutton (19-9) and either Al Downing (9-9) or Tommy John (11-5), all of whom had ERAs under 3.0 in 1972. Osteen, who wistfully recalls the team's pennant years, thinks there are some characteristics this team shares with its predecessor. "We didn't have the power then," he said, "but we were scrappy and we executed. We are and we will."

The San Francisco Giants, who fell from the top of the division nearly to the bottom, have all sorts of power. What they have trouble doing is hitting the ball at all. Last year they struck out a grand total of 964 times. Big Dave Kingman, 6'6", was the team leader at 140-128 of them swinging. Bobby Bonds, who used to strike out 180 times a season, was down to 137 last year, but that is still embarrassing, and Gary Maddox, Willie Mays' successor in center field, had 97 whiffs.

Manager Charlie Fox worked diligently this spring to convince his big swingers that good things sometimes happen even when the ball is hit softly. The point is to hit it. Kingman, who aspires to hit every pitch into oblivion, had 29 home runs and some of them were indeed memorable, but his average fell to .225 after a promising beginning. Fox wants him hitting for a better average than that. "I told him he does not have to hit every pitch 40 rows into the bleachers," says Fox. "One row will do."

Fox is fortunate to have yet another budding power hitter in 22-year-old Chris Speier (15 home runs, .269), who also just happens to be the league's best shortstop and a player about whom his manager can say, "He has no known defect." There are innumerable defects elsewhere, however, not the least the declining powers of Pitchers Juan Marichal (6-16) and Sam McDowell (10-8).

Marichal underwent surgery last October to correct a protruding lumbar disc that had inhibited his flamboyant pitching motion for the past several seasons. The high kick was back this spring and Marichal was pitching seemingly without pain, but something was missing from his fastball. He has at his beck and call an impressive array of pitches, thrown from many different angles, but he must have the fastball to be truly effective. And after 3,236 major league innings, it may have been dissipated. Even if his back is sound, Marichal's arm may be too weary to deliver with the old gusto. Still, he remains a pivotal figure for the Giants. He already has won more games (227) than any other active pitcher and his career earned run average of 2.75 is the fourth best in baseball history for pitchers in 3,000 or more innings, excelled only by Walter Johnson's 2.37, Grover Cleveland Alexander's 2.56 and Whitey Ford's 2.74. But at 34, Marichal may be nearing the end.

McDowell, the old strikeout specialist, is an even shakier prospect. Sudden Sam's arm may well be more than tired. His protests to the contrary, it could merely be very sore. The Giants can still expect some good pitching from newcomer Tom Bradley (over from the White Sox) and returnees Ron Bryant, Jim Willoughby and Jim Barr, who can be both a starter and a reliever. But they'll need help from Marichal and McDowell to win very often. Strangely enough, Fox still thinks this team is better than the one he won the division championship with in 1971.

San Diego Manager Don Zimmer offers no such claim. "We have a leftfielder [Leron Lee] and a first baseman [Nate Colbert] and a bunch of other guys fighting for jobs." The job seekers are a precocious lot. Unfortunately, until they acquire the experience they will play like kids. And kids will have to get out of the way of the Big Red Machine. So will quite a few adults.