Imagine a pennant race in which a team with a 2�-game lead leaves in August on an 11-game road trip to Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Montreal, loses eight games and comes home still halt a game ahead. That happened to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1970 and speaks volumes about the kind of division the National League East was. "I think," says Pirate slugger Willie Stargell, "we will not get away with it this time."
Maybe not, but one thing certain about the National League East today is that it is more bunched than ever. The Phillies, for instance, are at last pushing to join the leaders, and they have extra incentives galore: new cherry-red shoes; the league's latest and largest ball park, Veterans Stadium (capacity 56,371); a huge scoreboard featuring the team's newest symbols, Philadelphia Phil and Philadelphia Phyllis; and a history of awful ineptitude. Had not the 1950 Whiz Kids messed up and won a pennant on the last day, the Phillies would be entering their 55th year without a glimmer of success. "The new park is bound to help us," says Manager Frank Lucchesi. "I dropped by it during the winter and even the typists were typing faster."
Nobody expects the Phillies to take the division title. But they are sentimental favorites, at least in Philadelphia. The club suffered so many injuries in 1970 that it might have been more appropriate to field nine Ace bandages than a team. But the Phillies had grit and the fans cheered them for it. Now, at a time when money is supposed to be tight, the Phillies are headed for an opening-day sellout.
From a pure baseball standpoint, the team is an uneasy combination of old and young and has many lineup gaps. But none of them are in the pitching staff, assuming that Jim Bunning continues to get younger every year. At 39, Bunning is the oldest starting pitcher in the big leagues—he needs only seven strikeouts to pass Cy Young as the second greatest strikeout pitcher of all time—and he is still effective. Joining him are Barry Lersch, Rick Wise and Chris Short. Lersch, 26, came on strong at the end of last season and had an ERA of 3.00 as a starter. This followed what a Philadelphia press release called a "parole" from the bullpen. Wise, still only 25, has been the team's biggest winner for two seasons. For strong relief there are Dick Selma and Joe Hoerner.
The Phillie infield is three parts kids and one part Deron Johnson. Don Money hit .295 last season—a jump of 66 points—and became recognized as one of baseball's better third basemen. Larry Bowa is among the best defensive shortstops in the league and overcame a terrible April to hit .250 and steal 24 bases. Denny Doyle plays second despite a .208 year. "I am not going to quit on him," says Lucchesi, "because we haven't seen the real Denny Doyle as yet." He has seen the real Deron Johnson and approves. Johnson knocked in 93 runs with 27 homers in 1970.
The outfield should be much stronger if Roger Freed, acquired from Baltimore this winter, can hit big-league pitching. With Rochester Freed smashed 24 homers, averaged .334 and knocked in 130 runs in 138 games. The Phillies won 10 more games in 1970 than they did in 1969. A similar improvement in the coming season could be interesting—very interesting.
The New York Mets, who did not perform very well in 1970, spent the winter in meditation instead of Las Vegas. It is hoped this desire not to let the chips fall where they may will help refurbish the splendid reputations of the 1969 Mets. Not that the 1970 team was all that tarnished. The pitchers, for instance, still had the best ERA in the league (3.45). Despite a losing 10-14 record, Jim McAndrew won many of his games when they meant the most to the club. Tom Seaver put together six-and nine-game winning streaks. The disappointments were Jerry Koosman (12-7), who threw only five complete games, Gary Gentry (9-9) and Nolan Ryan (7-11). It is now or never for the latter two, and they are working diligently to make it now.
Cleon Jones, whose good years coincide with fast starts, was cool in the early going last season, but the year was hardly a writeoff with a .277 average and 63 RBIs. Centerfielder Tommie Agee, with 24 homers, 75 RBIs and a .286 average, did even better than Jones despite suffering cartilage damage in his left knee. He is hoping his knee holds up and his strikeouts (156) are held down. The infield is solid and if First Baseman Donn Clendenon can come close to last year's performance (in 121 games he batted home 97 runs), the Mets can start brushing up those old Las Vegas acts.
Were it not for a history of one-shot champions—the Pirates have not won consecutive titles since 1902-03—Pittsburgh would have to be considered the logical favorite to win in '71. But also militating against the Pirates is last season's history. They took their division with only 89 victories, which was 11 fewer than when New York won the year before. Their victims were from their own division—against the Cubs, Mets, Cards and Phils they were 48-24—and 20 of their wins were by one run. A little push the other way and the Pirates could be awash in their own Three Rivers.