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Knocking 'Em For A Loop

The Astros, Giants and Braves, sad sacks last year, have used youth to turn the NL West upside down

Unless you bleed Dodger blue or Rose red, you gotta like these standings in the National League West. Two-and-a-half games separate the first five teams, and sitting right there on top are the Houston Astros and the San Francisco Giants, who were rumored to be ticketed for Washington and Denver, respectively, and were earlier thought to be headed for 100 losses, disrespectively.

They're not the only surprises. The Atlanta Braves rode into the fray last week with a seven-game winning streak. The rallying cry of the Giants this year is "You Gotta Like These Kids," but the slogan is just as apt for the Astros and Braves. All three have been infused with youth, and all three are benefiting from a breath of fresh management. With one-quarter of the season over, they have stood the division on its head, serving notice to their more venerable rivals.

Of course, none of this would have developed if superstar Pedro Guerrero knew how to slide or if the Cincinnati Reds knew how not to. Four days before Opening Day, Guerrero ripped up both his knee and the Dodgers' opportunity to run away with the division. Cincinnati became the favorite, then promptly Schott itself in the foot, losing 19 of its first 25 games. The two teams everyone thought would dance to the top weren't exactly Fred and Ginger. They were more like Fred and Ethel.

Enter last year's doormats. "The kids have taken a lot of 1985 away," says Giants pitcher Mike Krukow, who has a T shirt that reads YOU GOTTA LIKE THESE OLD GUYS, TOO. "With the attention they're getting we don't have to talk about how bad we were."

"Guys are coming to the park early and can't wait to play," says third baseman Ken Oberkfell of the Braves, who is currently batting .325. "The attitude has been outstanding. It's fun again."

"We aren't that much different from the Mets," Astro reliever Dave Smith, the league leader in saves with 11, said on Saturday. "They have 25 wins, we have 22." As of Sunday, the Astros had a 23-18 record and were in a virtual tie with the Giants, who were 24-19. The Braves and Padres were a game and a half in back of them.

The new attitudes all come from new managers, each of whom has a different style. The Giants' Roger Craig turned off the music in his clubhouse, while Chuck Tanner of the Braves seems to have turned it up in his. In Houston, the communication lines are open again now that Hal Lanier has replaced the taciturn Bob Lillis. More important, Lanier has borrowed the aggressive style of the '85 Cardinals and mentor Whitey Herzog. Given the Cards' bad start, Whitey probably wants it back.

The Giants' success is the biggest shocker. Last season they lost 100 games for the first time in their history and drew barely 800,000 fans to Candlestick Park. Owner Bob Lurie refused to admit he was stuck at the 'Stick for another year until he had no other option. A team of giant skeptics arrived at spring training. "It's pretty tough to convince 24 guys that you're a good club after you've lost 100 games," says Krukow.

Craig ignored the negatives in camp and went about business in a firm, upbeat way. His influence has been the greatest on the pitchers, naturally, nearly all of whom are using his split-fingered fastball. The staff ace, Mike LaCoss, didn't have a job when he came to spring training. Released by the Royals last fall, LaCoss has, with Craig as his avatar, bolted to a start of 5-1 and a 1.91 ERA. Sunday he beat the Expos 11-3, allowing four hits in eight innings and getting four hits himself, including a two-run double.

Craig had no qualms about awarding starting jobs to two rookies, Will (Thrill) Clark at first base and Robby Thompson at second. Half of the 24-man roster that opened the season consisted of players with less than two years' experience, and one-third of the players weren't with the team a year ago.

Clark, the second player taken in last June's free-agent draft, homered in his first at bat as a major leaguer, only the 53rd player in history to do so (No. 24 was an outfielder with the 1955 Milwaukee Braves named Chuck Tanner). He has received a lot of attention for his .266 average, league-leading 31 runs scored and matinee-idol looks, in the process overshadowing Chris Brown, who has quietly become the best third baseman in the league.

Last year, Brown, 24, was noted for spending more time in the training room than the trainer does. But early this season he dispelled any notion that he was protecting himself when he crashed into the Dodger dugout going after a foul pop. At week's end, the 6'2", 210-pound Brown was fourth in the league in hitting with a .338 average. He has been playing third as if auditioning for a highlight film. A May 18 double play that saved a 4-1 win over Philadelphia was still being talked about three days later. The Phillies had loaded the bases with one out in the sixth. Glenn Wilson hit a sharp grounder between third and short. Brown, playing in, dived to his left, caught the smash and started the inning-ending play from his knees. "This was the best double play I've ever seen," catcher Bob Brenly says. "It may have been the best in the history of organized baseball."

"I figure every ball I get to, I should be able to make the play," says Brown. "I noticed when Graig Nettles takes ground balls before a game he doesn't want them hit right at him. Now, I do that, too."

San Francisco's offense has skyrocketed from last in runs (3.4 per game) in 1985 to first (4.8) this season. Things are so different that outfielder Jeff Leonard asked to be called Jeffrey, prompting pundits to suggest that his nickname of Penitentiary Face be changed to Correctional Facility Face. Leonard also has a bat with a rather rude remark written on the top, where his name should be, a bat that has helped him to a .323 average, six homers and 28 RBIs. And Candy Maldonado has come off the bench to pinch-hit three homers and drive in nine RBIs, more pinch-hit RBIs than seven other NL teams.

The Giants won only two games last week, but one of them was a shellacking of Dr. K. Outfielder Chili Davis's two-run single knocked Dwight Gooden out of the box in last Thursday's 10-2 drubbing of the Mets, which made Davis 9 for 16, lifetime, against Gooden. As Davis once said, and a Candlestick banner that day quoted, HE AIN'T GOD, MAN.

The city of San Francisco is running a mild case of Giant fever. Attendance is more than 100,000 ahead of last year through 25 dates, and at the current pace the Giants will reach 1.5 million, their best total since 1978. Transistor radios have blossomed like spring flowers, and downtown ticket offices have long lines in front of them. Giant caps are once again a hot item and any reference to the city of Denver is considered in poor taste.

The Astros, on the other hand, have not caught on with the populace of Houston. Average attendance is 14,106, 10th in the league, prompting the cynical suggestion that the 57th All-Star Game, scheduled for July 15 in the Astrodome, be moved to D.C. The lack of interest is a shame because the Astros have been playing good, solid baseball—they have been in first place 32 of the last 33 days. And though largely anonymous, they have some colorful personalities.

Take the Pterodactyl and the Vulture, otherwise known as Charlie Kerfeld and Dave Smith, who have made the Houston bullpen the envy of the league. The rookie Kerfeld is 4-1 with a 1.27 ERA and two saves as the setup man for Smith, who has a 2.35 ERA to go with his 11 saves. (When Smith gave up a game-winning hit Saturday to the Cubs, it marked the first time since Aug. 8 that he had blown a save opportunity.) The 6'6", 245-pound Kerfeld explains the nicknames. "I'm the Pterodactyl," he says. "I swarp [sic] down on them until it's time to get a save, and let him finish them off. He's the vulture." Says Dave Smith, "I got a save early in the season, and he got the win. He came running out of the dugout flapping his wings. I'm thinking, 'Look at that idiot.' " In the Astros' 3-1, 11-inning victory over the Cubs Sunday, Kerfeld and Smith were true to their nicknames, as the Pterodactyl got the win and the Vulture got the save.

The idea of sending Kerfeld in to swarp from the bullpen originated with Lanier, who, as a Cardinal coach from 1981 to '85, learned to handle pitchers by. watching Herzog. Lanier's strategy on offense has a definite Cardinal tinge. The Astros showed it in the early going: hit-ting-and-running, taking the extra bases and consistently putting pressure on the defense. Leadoff hitter and second baseman Bill Doran has blossomed under Lanier, with an on-base percentage of .384 and 14 stolen bases. He stole only 23 last season.

The team's bats have gone cold in the last two weeks, but the Astros were still clinging to the top. Houston finished first in hits and second in runs in the NL last year, so general manager Dick Wagner saw no reason to make any major deals over the winter. Yet now Houston has no one in the top 10 of any offensive category, except walks and steals, neither of which involves hitting the ball. "We have to start swinging the bat like this club did last season," Lanier says. "The pitchers have kept us where we are this year."

Lanier has gotten away with using Bob Knepper, Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan to start 34 of Houston's first 41 games. But with only three off days until the All-Star break, that trio will need some starting help. Of course, the way Knepper has been throwing they could pitch him every other day. The veteran southpaw is 8-2 with a 1.97 ERA and three shutouts. He can spot the ball anywhere, has a good breaking pitch and better-than-average speed. Knepper's career, though, has been marked by inconsistency and dogged by the question of whether his strong Christian beliefs interfere with his desire to win.

"I won 17 games for the Giants in 1978, and then the team didn't do diddly in '79 or '80, and the six or seven Christians on the team took the brunt of the criticism," Knepper says. "I really took the brunt of it. I became a real recluse. A story came out in 1980 saying that after I gave up a home run that cost us a game, and [manager] Dave Bristol came to take me out, I told him the home run 'was just God's will.' I know it never happened. But it completely devastated me. When I came over here and got off to a slow start in '82, the owner was supposedly believing all that stuff, that I just didn't want to win bad enough. It hurt me again. It made me realize what my values are. I try to pitch as well as I can. I don't worry about numbers, about winning 20 games. Whatever happens, happens."

Some Astros feel the same way about the supposed move to Washington. While the Giants were drawing 27,442 for a game with New York, Houston was counting 4,784 for a weekday game against Pittsburgh. "Once the Rockets are through," Kerfeld says, "if people don't show up, I wouldn't blame Dr. McMullen [Astros' owner John] for wanting to move."

Atlanta fans have tasted victory as recently as 1982, but from '83 to '85 attendance fell by almost 800,000. Last year the Braves lost 96 games, suggesting a change of command. Owner Ted Turner brought in Tanner first and then former Blue Jay manager Bobby Cox as the general manager. They immediately set out to build up the bench, the pitching and the confidence.

For the bench, they plucked two veterans from the American League, outfielder Billy Sample and catcher Ted Simmons, and another, Omar Moreno, from the scrap heap. No one imagined the effect Simmons would have on the Braves. "My eyes were open," Simmons says. "My role is to pinch-hit and play when somebody is hurt." Simmons does a little of everything. He throws batting practice to the pitchers. He's 4 for 9 with men in scoring position. He's a bench jockey who's so effective he was ejected in the fifth inning by the home plate umpire, Randy Marsh, in St. Louis in Friday night's game. And he's the founder of the Braves' Bomb Squad: reserves Simmons, Sample, Moreno, catcher Bruce Benedict, infielder Andres Thomas and first baseman Chris Chambliss. When the Braves beat the Cardinals 6-2 in a rain-shortened game Sunday, Sample drove in two runs with a homer on the first pitch of the game and a sac fly.

"Attitude is the main difference this year," says Dale Murphy. "We had it in '82 and '83. For a while there, though, we just showed up."

Some believe the team's attitude was helped by the April Fools' Day Massacre. Cox decided to cut veteran pitchers Len Barker, Rick Camp, Terry Forster and Pascual Perez, which meant swallowing $3.45 million in salaries. It also meant that the Braves had committed to pitching the kids. The Royals made a similar move in 1983 and have reaped the benefits ever since. In Atlanta, starters Zane Smith and Joe Johnson, and relievers Paul Assenmacher and Duane Ward all won jobs.

The staff already has eight complete games after getting nine all last year. Despite having to pitch half its games in the Launching Pad, Atlanta Stadium, it is third in the NL in fewest home runs allowed (27). Smith (4-4, 2.43 ERA), a lefthander, has proven the equal of anyone at getting a ground ball. He has allowed only two fly-ball outs in his last 34 innings and hasn't given up a home run since last July 11. He is third in the league in strikeouts with 61, and he wants to be first in the league in length of hair. Johnson, a control pitcher, is 6-3, and Assenmacher (1.83 ERA, four saves) has taken up some of the bullpen slack while ace Bruce Sutter tries to recapture the magic of his split-fingered fastball. "We bust our butts to prove Chuck was right to have confidence in us to pitch," says Smith.

Moreno, who had his best years under Tanner at Pittsburgh, has proved again what a spark he can be off the bench. Despite only 73 at bats, he is second in the league with four triples and is hitting .288. Atlanta's offense, however, still goes only as far as Murphy and first baseman Bob Horner can carry them. In April, Horner started out 0 for 21 and hit .194. The Braves were 7-12. In May, Horner has hit .277 with five homers and 21 RBIs, and the Braves have gone 16-6 in the merry month.

With Tanner and first base coach Willie Stargell aboard, it's no coincidence that the new Braves often use the word family to describe their new atmosphere. It's still too early to tell whether they, or the Astros or Giants, can parlay their revived spirit into a division title, but for now, you gotta like these kids.



Hats off to Brown of the Giants, who barreled into Met Gary Carter to score a run.



The Astros' Doran (above) has sparkled on defense and offense; the Giants' Clark has an excellent future well within his reach.



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New managers Craig (top), Lanier (middle) and Tanner have been successful at convincing their players that they are winners.



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The Pterodactyl—Kerfeld—used his incredible wingspan to "swarp" down on the Cubs.



Oberkfell lifts off for a hot shot at third; his batting average has also taken flight.



As Horner got going, so did the Braves.