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Knocking 'Em For A Loop
Ivan Maisel
June 02, 1986
The Astros, Giants and Braves, sad sacks last year, have used youth to turn the NL West upside down
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June 02, 1986

Knocking 'em For A Loop

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

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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.

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