An unexpected benefit of the Blue acquisition has been his effect on Knepper, 24, who six-hit the Cubs last week 4-3. Knepper was struggling when the Giants brought him up from Phoenix last year to replace the injured Montefusco, but he found the majors more to his liking as he had an 11-9 record. Sudden success, however, brought sudden responsibility he did not particularly want. "People started telling me I was supposed to be the team's ace lefthander," says Knepper. "Instead of asking me only to do my best they were putting pressure on me. But with Vida here, I can concentrate on learning how to pitch without worrying about being the star."
Now that Montefusco has recovered from last season's ankle injury and with Ed Halicki back in the rotation after missing the first five weeks with a muscle pull, Knepper should have plenty of help. This wealth of starters has made a reliever of Jim Barr, even though he has two of the staffs three shutouts. As it is, the Giant bullpen, led by Gary Lavelle, has been called on to make only eight saves.
Good pitching is not the only reason the Giants vaulted to first place. The rest of the team is doing the little things needed to win even while ranking seventh in the most important statistical category—runs. Rightfielder Jack Clark scored what proved to be the winning run in a game against San Diego by racing home from second base after a fly ball to center. Last week Ivie, who is built like a budding Boog Powell, set up another one-run victory when he unexpectedly stole second base. It was only the 14th theft of his six-year major league career. He then scored on a bloop double to center. Another contribution has been the defensive work of Shortstop Johnnie LeMaster. A woeful hitter with a weak swing and a .202 average, he has saved one-run wins against the Pirates and Cardinals with backhand stabs in the ninth inning.
And then there's the timely hitting. Willie McCovey is among the league RBI leaders with 26 even though he has only 21 hits and a .196 average. The outfield of Terry Whitfield, 25, Larry Herndon, 24, and Clark, 22, has provided the most consistent offense, with batting averages of .298, .277 and .308, respectively. With his speed, power and strong arm, Clark is considered the most promising. A .300 hitter in the minors, he batted only .252 during 1977, his rookie season, but last week he was in the midst of a confidence-boosting 12-game hitting streak. "There's no stopping me now," he said.
There seems to be no stopping Ivie either, if only he gets enough opportunities to play. But first base is his best position, and McCovey is an institution not easily displaced. Even Manager Joe Altobelli admits it is a "ticklish situation." So while McCovey recuperated from an injury last week, Ivie went on a .400 tear. "I'm going to get all I can while I have the chance," he said.
That pretty much sums up the feelings of all the Giants. "The Dodgers and Reds have the prestige of the past, but this is today," says Whitfield. "We're young, they're getting old." Adds Montefusco, "I used to have to lie a little to get the fans to come out. Now I really believe we are good. I finally feel like I'm in the big leagues."
Considering the doings in Oakland the last couple of seasons, Blue must feel that way, too.