Poor Atlanta. The Braves won 11 straight, then lost one, and in all that time and effort gained only two games on league-leading Cincinnati. The Braves had been seven behind the Reds when things began to hum, and after all the heroics they were still a big five back last Sunday night. Henry Aaron, rapidly closing in on the 3,000th hit of his illustrious career, hit home runs in four consecutive games, and Orlando Cepeda was batting .350, but nobody was getting much closer to a World Series ring.
At least Aaron and Cepeda are among the list of candidates for the All-Star Game. Rico Carty, leading the league in hitting with a .427 average, is not (six of the top eight batsmen in the National League are not included in the computerized ballots being distributed around the country). Carty had a 28-game hitting streak going—during the Braves' 11 straight he had 19 hits in 41 ABs, which is a .463 pace, All-Star fans—as well as eight homers and 27 runs batted in, but all he can be is a write-in candidate.
Since the All-Star manager picks the pitchers, Hoyt Wilhelm, who appeared in his 1,000th game, could at 46 become the second-oldest All-Star ever (no one will ever be as old as Satchel Paige). Wilhelm seems to be getting better. Certainly his save of Atlanta's final game in the streak was dramatic. Wilhelm came on in the seventh inning to face Richie Allen and Joe Torre and struck out both. For those who might have thought it was a fluke he did exactly the same thing to the same pair with two runners on in the ninth.
"I had it tonight," Wilhelm said afterward. "It's the first time this year I've really had the knuckleball." His 21-year-old catcher, Bob Didier, agreed. "That was the best I've ever seen him throw the knuckleball," he said. An even more valid compliment came from San Diego slugger Nate Colbert. After striking out against Wilhelm, Colbert turned and yelled, "Why don't you go home and tend your grandchildren?"
Another knuckleballer, Phil Niekro, who had lost his first four starts, turned a corner and won three in a row, the last a five-hit shutout of Pittsburgh. And catcher Hal King, who used to be called Pitchfork Hands in Houston, seems to have reformed after a season of winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he dug up a few pointers on catching. Call him Shovel Hands now.
Pitcher Jim Nash devised his own method of self-improvement. Noting that he seemed to struggle more in games in Atlanta than he did on the road, Nash asked his numerous kinfolk from nearby Marietta, Ga. to stay home—and a less nervous Nash won his fourth game 5-3. Now, if only someone in Atlanta could charter a plane to take Tony Perez' relatives to Cincinnati.