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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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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.

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