THE ROSE GARDEN
The Reds have suddenly become the National League's glamour team. "Is this the World Series?" asked Buddy Bell last week as reporters crammed the Reds' Shea Stadium clubhouse for an Eric Davis press conference. No one disputes that Cincinnati has the best young talent in baseball, with Davis, Kal Daniels, Barry Larkin, Kurt Stillwell and Tracy Jones. And Davis, Daniels and perennial MVP candidate Dave Parker have taken from Toronto the title of "best outfield in baseball."
But the biggest reason the Reds have reversed last year's 6-19 start is their bullpen, and the way manager Pete Rose handles it. "There's no better bullpen around," boasts Rose. Supporting him are the combined numbers of John Franco, Ron Robinson, Rob Murphy and Frank Williams through Sunday: four wins, 11 saves, 1.45 ERA. In 92 relief appearances, the opposition scored only 13 runs. The star of stars has been Franco, who accounted for six of those saves without allowing a hit. In fact, only one of the first 32 batters he faced reached base, on a Bell error.
The 26-year-old lefthander, who pitched in Frank Viola's shadow at St. John's, was so lightly regarded after signing with the Dodgers that he was a throw-in (after Brett Wise) in a deal for the immortal Rafael Landestoy in 1983. Rose says Franco's forte is his guts, but Franco credits his success to a dead-fish changeup he learned from Dodger minor league instructor Dave Wallace. "People look for it all the time, although I think I've thrown only eight or nine all season," says Franco. He also has an 88-mph fastball he throws three different ways. "He is as tough on righthanders as he is on lefties," says Rose. That's because Franco can turn the changeup over, making it act like an off-speed screwball.
Rose has flourished by giving each of his four relievers specific roles, the way Dick Williams handled his A's staff in 1973-74 and Whitey Herzog tag-teamed the '85 Cardinal pen. Only once in 12 outings has Franco gone more than one inning. Only thrice has any member of the Reds' foursome been asked to go more than two innings. "He has us set up perfectly," says Franco.
"What makes them so good as a group is that they are all different," says catcher Sal Butera. Franco throws fastballs and change-ups. Righty Robinson comes with hard fastballs and curves. Lefty Murphy is a power pitcher with a slider. Righthander Williams comes sidearm and has allowed just one extra-base hit to a right-handed batter in two seasons. Rose never lets hitters get two looks at any reliever in a game, so their contrasting styles are more effective.
Cincinnati's starters are another story. After Bill Gullickson and converted reliever Ted Power, the Reds need help, and general manager Bill Bergesch is searching for it. The Astros, Giants and Dodgers have better starters, but no team has better finishers than Rose's Reds.
Philadelphia passed up Detroit's offer of Dan Petry for John Russell, Rick Schu and Kent Tekulve. Then the Tigers showcased Petry in an exhibition game against the Reds—they wanted Cincinnati's Tracy Jones and talked about Nick Esasky. The Reds said no, so Detroit next discussed a Petry-for- Gary Ward swap with the Yankees but couldn't reach an agreement. Meanwhile, Willie Hernandez returned to the Tigers from the DL and broke down in his first outing, so Eric King will probably have to stay in the bullpen and Petry will no longer be expendable for a muchneeded power hitter. Error-prone Darnell Coles has been all but written off at third base, and Sparky Anderson is so frustrated by Chester Lemon that he's platooning him with Billy Bean in centerfield. Anderson has often said that good teams shouldn't platoon at more than two positions. He is now platooning at five. "I'm trying to motivate a couple of guys, display a couple of guys and stay away from a couple of others," says Sparky....
The Brewers were wondering what was wrong with ace Ted Higuera when he lasted only four innings against Oakland on April 29. Then they discovered he has had tendinitis in his left ankle since spring training but hadn't said anything about it. While Higuera favored the ankle, tenderness developed in his left knee. To be safe, the Brewers are on the lookout for one more veteran starter after having already given a minor league contract on April 28 to Len Barker....