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This frantic division has been fairly consistent the past six years. While Montreal improves, Chicago falls back. While Philadelphia shows promise, St. Louis contends. And while New York is unpredictable, Pittsburgh plays close to form. This season figures to be among the most competitive of all.
After three second-place finishes in four years, St. Louis seems capable of escaping its runner-up rut. The offense and defense are solid, and the relief pitchers are capable, but, like most teams, the Cardinals do not have a surplus of starting pitchers.
The big question is 39-year-old Bob Gibson, who has announced that his 17th major league season will be his last. At least Gibson's knees are stronger than they were last year, when his record fell below .500 for the first time since he became a Cardinal regular. Lynn McGlothen (16-12) and Bob Forsch (7-4) came to the rescue, helping St. Louis to the East's best intradivisional record. The remarkable Al Hrabosky (8-1), Mike Gar-man (7-2) and Elias Sosa from San Francisco provide the quality bullpen.
"If we get the pitching," says Catcher Ted Simmons, "we'll win in a walk."
With Lou Brock around, he should have said they'll steal it. St. Louis Coach Dave Ricketts had some fun with Brock in spring training when he quipped, "Lou, if you'd stolen a few more bases last year, we would have won the title." The 35-year-old Brock, who was good for a record 118, just smiled. At the plate he batted .306—excellent, but third best in an outfield that included .309-hitters Bake McBride and Reggie Smith.
St. Louis has a possible successor to Rookie-of-the-Year McBride in First Baseman Keith Hernandez, 21, who batted .294 last season in a brief stay with the Cardinals. An oldcomer to the team is former Tiger Eddie Brinkman, 33, at short. He is a fine fielder, and with Ken Reitz at third the left side of the Cardinal infield should be death on ground balls.
Dead was what the Pittsburgh Pirates appeared to be on June 7, 1974, with the worst record in the majors. Five weeks later they earned a split decision in a wild doubleheader against Cincinnati and started to move, going .671 the rest of the way. "That was the real Pittsburgh team," says Manager Danny Murtaugh. "I don't see why we can't start off" that way this year." While the complexities of pitching and fielding continue to mystify some Pirates, Pittsburgh remains the best hitting team in baseball. As Al Oliver, a .321 swinger, states, it is "something we take for granted."
The Pirate outfield of Oliver, Richie Zisk (.313) and Willie Stargell (.301) out-hit even the St. Louis threesome last season, and the Bucs may be more potent still this year if First Baseman Bob Robertson recovers from two knee operations. For now, however, Stargell moves to first and Dave Parker, still another big bat, is in the outfield.
Robertson was not the only Pirate to suffer surgery. Pitcher Ken Brett, a .310 hitter and 1.000 fielder, is coming off an elbow operation, as is Reliever Dave Giusti. Injury-prone Dock Ellis will be on the lookout for line drives up the middle like the one that cut short his 1974 season. But Jerry Reuss (16-11) and Jim Rooker (15-11) return unscathed after their best performances.
"There is no way we're going to get off to a start like last year's," says Oliver. "And anyway, if we can win it that way, we can win it under any circumstances." The Pirates may need another strong finish, however, since six of their last nine games are against St. Louis, which took 11 of 18 from them in 1974.