The manager has gone most of the season without a successful fifth starting pitcher. He had tried in that spot, at various times, Mark Knudson, Julio Solano, Mike Madden, Matt Keough and Manny Hernandez. None cut the mustard. Finally, on Aug. 15, Knudson and another pitcher, Don August, were traded to the Brewers for Danny Darwin, a 30-year-old veteran who had a 6-8 record this year. Lanier is convinced now that his pitching staff" is finally complete. Kerfeld is sure of it. "All you hear is Mets this and Mets that," he grumbles, "but I'll tell you one thing—their stats ain't any better than ours."
The offense ain't so bad either, despite the intimidating dimensions and still air of the Astrodome. First baseman Glenn Davis, with 25 homers, should become the first Astro to hit 30 or more since Jimmy Wynn hit 33 in 1969. And Bass, a lopsided switch-hitter a year ago (.311 righthanded, .241 lefty), has regained his equilibrium by determining wisely that he is a different sort of hitter on each side of the plate. "Righthanded, I'm a pull hitter," he concluded. "Lefthanded, I'm a multifield hitter." He's right. Batting righty, he has hit 4 more homers (11 to 7) despite 76 fewer at bats, but the averages (.307 righty, .309 lefty) could not be in better balance. Bass had taken to calling himself "Rodney," as in Rodney Danger-field and no respect, earlier in the season. Then in June he was named NL Player of the Month, so the Rodney became "Rodney, as in Carew."
The Astros have an abundance of what Bass might call multifielders, and they give the team, in Lanier's opinion, all sorts of options. Lopes has played all three outfield positions and third base, and he can still play some second. Walling, who platoons with Phil Garner at third, has also played first, left and right. Garner plays both second and third. And Craig Reynolds, who mostly platoons at short with Dickie Thon, has also played first, third and rightfield, and on July 17 he pitched a memorable ninth inning in a 13-2 loss to the Mets. After striking out a humiliated Howard Johnson, he gave up three runs.
Berra could have been speaking of the notoriously reluctant Houston fans when he said, long ago, "If the people don't want to come out to the park, nobody's going to stop 'em." In their absence early this year, they had baseball people talking about an Astros move to Washington D.C. But now they are finally beginning to realize that they have something worth watching. In June, attendance was some 80,000 behind the pace of a year ago, when the team drew only 1,182,541. But since the All-Star break, the average has been close to 24,000 per game in the Dome. The players are happy to see them there. "It helps us," says Scott. "When we get big crowds in there, they can be as noisy as those anywhere. I think it took the people a while to really believe we could be where we are. They had a wait-and-see attitude. They probably wanted to see where we would be in September."
Well, that, barring the suddenly unforeseen, would certainly seem to be in first place.