Peering out at the murky future from dissimilar vantage points, the Astros and the Dodgers gamely sought to put their respective selves in perspective last week. Surely, Houston is not as good as its 9-7 record would seem to indicate, and Los Angeles is not as bad as its 4-9 mark. Why then should the former be enjoying the heady atmosphere of a virtual tie for first place and the latter the dank air of the cellar? After all, the Dodgers were expected to occupy the high ground, the Astros to inhabit the lower depths. What, each was obliged to ask, is going on here?
A head-to-head confrontation in the Astrodome provided no clear answer, for the teams divided four games. And there was no clue to the reversal of roles in the way they began their seasons, since they both started off abominably. The Dodgers lost their first five games, their worst opening performance in six years. The Astros had the bad luck to begin their season with a three-game series in Cincinnati against the world champion Reds. They lost all three, giving up 33 runs, 43 hits and 11 stolen bases. There was nothing terribly novel about that. In 1975 the Astros lost 97 games and finished 43½ behind the Reds in the National League West. But this season they rebounded from the foreboding start to win their next six games and move to the top. Meanwhile, the Dodgers continued to play as if they were the Brooklyn Daffiness Boys reincarnate.
In their tit-for-tat series certain truths did emerge. Quite obviously the Astros are an improved team. They are faster on the bases, steadier in the field and considerably stronger on the mound, with a maturing J. R. Richard in the starting rotation and a rejuvenated Ken Forsch in the bullpen.
The Dodgers do not seem to be stronger anywhere. Most of all, they miss Pitcher Andy Messersmith, the Dred Scott of baseball. They have not had base-stealing Second Baseman Davey Lopes all season and last week they lacked Steve Yeager, their powerful catcher. Yeager had a sore arm, Lopes a pulled rib-cage muscle. Both will return. Messersmith will not. As some compensation, Pitcher Tommy John has come back. The lefthander had been absent since July 17, 1974, when he ruptured a ligament in his pitching elbow. Delicate surgery was required to mend the damage, and it was feared he would never regain the skills that had earned him a 13-3 record at the time of his misfortune. But John surprised even his most optimistic supporters with a solid performance in spring training. He started for the first time in a regular season game on April 16 against Atlanta, and though he lost the game and gave up three runs in five innings, he established that he could still pitch in the big leagues.
Last week in a 16-inning thriller that the Astros won 1-0, John went the first seven innings. Though the Dodgers lost, he was unable to conceal his elation. "I learned something in Atlanta," he said. "I learned that my fastball is a lot better than I thought it was."
Houston exhibited its own new pitching muscle in the 16-inning game. Richard went the first 10 innings, and Forsch relieved for five before Mike Barlow got the win when Jose Cruz drove home the only run of the game. It was further evidence for taciturn Manager Bill Virdon that the 6'8" Richard is finally measuring up to his potential and that Forsch is "even better than I thought he was." Two nights later in a 3-1 defeat of the Mets, Forsch registered his sixth save of the season, surpassing his 1975 total by four. Forsch is enthused not only by his own improvement but also by that of his colleagues on a pitching staff that had been generous to a fault. "This year we can get shelled one day and shut 'em out the next," he says. "When we lost those games in Cincinnati, I think all of us said, 'Oh, no, not this again.' But we decided we just weren't going to let that happen to us this year."
Offensively, the Astros have first-rate hitters in First Baseman Bob Watson (.304), Centerfielder Cesar Cedeno, who hit his fifth homer of the season and knocked in all three runs in the win over the Mets, and surprising Enos Cabell, a full-time player at third base for the first time in his four-year career. The gaunt 6'4" Cabell had started only about 30 games at third before this season, but during two years in the Baltimore dugout he learned at the feet of the master, Brooks Robinson. "He taught me everything I know about the position," says Cabell. "I think I can play there now. I feel comfortable. And I've always been able to hit good." That he is doing (.343 batting average), and if he is not yet a Robinson, his sure fielding has been an unexpected bonus to a team that traded away an expert, Doug Rader.
Despite the Astros' start, Virdon remains a realist. "It's encouraging to get off like this," he says. "The feeling is catching. You begin to think you can win. Oh, you have to see Cincinnati at the top, and the Dodgers are certainly better than they have been, but we could end up there somewhere. Stranger things have happened."
What would be stranger is if the Dodgers do not end up there somewhere. Walter Alston, celebrating what seems like his bicentennial as a manager, is worried about some unexpected weaknesses in his team—like poor hitting (the Dodgers' .227 team average is the lowest in the league) and the combined 1-5 pitching of Don Sutton (16-13 last season) and Burt Hooton (18-7)—but he is encouraged by the performances of John and lefthander Doug Rau, who beat the Astros 7-2 in the closing game of the series. Still, the wins have come so seldom that Alston has found himself saying, "I hate to lose as much as anybody, but there's no use worrying about things you can't help."
Besides, it could get worse. The Dodgers need only ask their utility Infielder Ted Sizemore. "I told these guys to keep their daubers up," he says. "I've been through this before. In '73 when I was with the Cardinals, we lost 20 of our first 25 and still damn near won the pennant."
With the mean old Reds and an upstart like Houston around, it is that "damn near" that could tend to keep the Dodgers' daubers down.
Dodger bats like Bill Buckner's have been unsplendid splinters. Team average is .227.