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With a mere five months remaining in the baseball season, Los Angeles still has not clinched the National League West Division championship. In light of what happened last spring, when the Dodgers came out smoking to win 22 of their first 26 games and virtually sew up the title by Memorial Day—no, make that Mother's Day—this was refreshing news to the opposition.
The 1978 season should be different—vastly different—if last week's results are any indication. Still smarting from their second-place showing of a year ago, the Reds whirled into Los Angeles in a fury and hammered the Dodgers in the teams' first two meetings of the season. Then, apparently still reeling from the 19-5 pasting they had taken in Games 1 and 2, the defending champions nearly gave away a victory they seemed to have firmly in hand. Clearly the Big Red Machine was back in gear, which means that the Big Blue Wrecking Crew was back in second place.
After their skirmish in L.A., the Dodgers and Reds split to meet the challenges of the Astros and Giants, respectively, the teams considered most likely to thrust themselves into a divisional race that has long been the province of Los Angeles and Cincy. But after the Dodgers had dumped the Astros in three of four games and the Reds had beaten the Giants in two of three, it was beginning to look as if the Reds or the Dodgers would reign again come September.
The division would seem to be out of whack if any other teams were on top. In its nine-year history, Cincinnati and Los Angeles have accounted for 14 first-or second-place finishes. They have ended up 1-2 or 2-1 in each of the last five seasons. The Reds won titles in 1970, '72, '73, '75 and '76, the Dodgers in '74 and '77.
When Los Angeles won last year it was a notable upset; the Reds, twice world champions, were being compared, by themselves and others, with the greatest teams of all time. The Dodgers ended that talk in a hurry, building a 13-game lead by May 27. Thereafter Cincinnati never got closer than 6� games, and it wound up losing by 10. "I tried everything I knew, including psychological warfare, but nothing worked," Manager Sparky Anderson says. "All I did was make a fool out of myself."
Though they were blown out of the race, the Reds were never convinced that the Dodgers were the better team. They beat Los Angeles 10 of 18 times and finished the year with a higher team batting average, a higher fielding average, more runs scored and more stolen bases. The only important department in which the Dodgers were significantly better, except for the won-lost record, of course, was pitching; L.A. led the league with a 3.22 ERA, while Cincinnati was 10th at 4.22.
"With any pitching at all we would have been in front by 10 at the All-Star break," Anderson claims. "If we finish in the top three in ERA this year, in the 3.30-3.40 range, we are a mortal lock to win the division. And I think we can, because this is the best staff we've had in my nine years as manager."
Certainly Tom Seaver is the best pitcher Anderson has ever had, although his record in '78 does not show it. Seaver was 14-3 with the Reds last season—21-6 for the year, including his two months with the Mets—but after four starts this year he was 0-1 with a 3.91 ERA. Anderson remains undismayed. "Tom will win 20," he says, "and I'll match any bet you want to make."
In fact, though Seaver's inability to win early has probably precluded the 30-victory season that rabid Cincinnatians had been predicting for him, his weak April could be viewed as a source of optimism for the Reds. If Cincy is a first-place team without a winning Seaver, what will it be when he cuts loose, as he presumably will? The obvious answer to that can only be disheartening for the Dodgers.
Offsetting Seaver's dawdling start has been the performance of Bill Bonham, a 29-year-old righthander who was a consistent loser (53-70) during his seven previous big league seasons with the Cubs. By beating the Dodgers, Bonham last week ran his record to 3-0, with a 3.24 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 25 innings. Only a sore elbow that developed late last week seems capable of preventing him from having his best season. Cozy Wrigley Field has never been noted for building pitchers' confidence. For that reason Anderson sees a similarity between Bonham and the Dodgers' Burt Hooton, another Cub loser, who became a big winner in Los Angeles.