If the Astros do nothing else this season, they still will have accomplished two things no previous Houston club has in the unlustrous 17-year history of the franchise. They will have led their division by four games, having awakened last Saturday with just that margin over the Reds. And they will have remained in first place for more than 11 consecutive days. Sunday marked their 15th straight day at the top of the National League's difficult West Division, easily surpassing the previous record set by the 1972 Astros. To be sure, there are five months and 140 games remaining on the schedule, but through the first month Houston qualifies as the surprise team in baseball. "I don't really know the significance of a fast start," says Astro Manager Bill Virdon, a placid man whose color is all in his uniform, "but the farther behind we can push L.A. now, the better I'll like it."
When First Baseman Bob Watson was asked if he, too, considered the defending champion Dodgers the team to beat, he positively bubbled as he said, "The team to beat is us. Let them worry about the Astros for a change."
Such an attitude is quite a turnabout for Watson, who has averaged 97 RBIs over the past three seasons while playing for teams that posted records of 80-82, 81-81 and 74-88. Not exactly upward mobility. In their entire history the Astros have finished better than .500 only twice. Fed up, Watson vowed to two Houston writers after the 1978 finale that he had played his last game as an Astro. He said he had asked General Manager Tal Smith to trade him to a contender, and since Watson would be in the final year of his contract, Smith had little choice but to try to oblige him. "It hurts to say it, but I don't expect this team to contend for the next couple of years," Watson told Harry Shattuck of the Houston Chronicle.
Now the Astros have launched themselves to a 14-6 start, and Watson may "have found himself a contender where he least expected to. No one thought Houston would be a factor in a division that shaped up as a struggle among the Giants, Dodgers and Reds and already had one dark horse in the Padres. Sure, the Astros had the imposing 6'8" James Rodney Richard, the first righthander in National League history to fan more than 300 batters in a season—he had 303 last year—and the winningest righthander, with 56 victories, in the league over the last three seasons. But how far could a team go on one pitcher's back? Houston's other starters, Joe Niekro, Ken Forsch and Vern Ruhle, did not have a winning lifetime record among them. Relievers? Only St. Louis had fewer saves than the Astros' 1978 total of 23. Power? Houston was dead last in the major leagues with 70 home runs. Infield? Last in double plays. To make matters worse, they were bumblers on the road, winning fewer than three of every 10 games played away from home.
True, after six different Astros had tried their thumbs at shortstop last year and six others had impersonated catchers, Houston had made an effort to stop those merry-go-rounds by trading for Shortstop Craig Reynolds and Catcher Alan Ashby, who came from Seattle and Toronto, respectively. Still, this was a team of question marks.
It took two days for Forsch to erase one of them. Having been almost exclusively a reliever until late last August, Forsch threw a no-hitter at the Braves on the second day of this season. By the end of last week he had become a fixture in the starting rotation, with a 3-0 record and a 2.31 ERA. Further, relief pitchers Joaquin Andujar and Joe Sambito had given up a total of four runs in their first 33⅓ innings and had combined for a 4-0 record. And, wonder of wonders, by winning two of four games in Chicago and Pittsburgh last week, the Astros had triumphed in six of their first 11 games on the road while going 8-1 in the friendly Astrodome. Buoyed by a pitching staff with an ERA of 2.72, Virdon was suddenly able to crow, "I can't see this team folding. The only thing we lack is power, and if you play the game right you don't need that."
You especially don't need it when you play in a park where only 59 home runs were hit last season. Opposing players dread visits to the Astrodome. Hitters lapse into deep depression as they speak of shadows on the ball and altered depth perception. They bemoan what they consider eerie lighting and bizarre reflections. Outfielders curse the "little white squares" that make up the roof. The hated Dome. To non-Astros, it is anything but out of this world.
The record shows it, too. Excluding Houston, National League teams won 57% of their home games and 44% of their road games last year. In contrast, the Astros had a .617 (50-31) percentage at home, fourth best in the league, but finished with the ninth-best overall record. Had they won half their away games, as both Cincinnati and Los Angeles did, Houston would have won 91 games and been in the thick of the pennant race instead of 21 games out. Since the Dome was built, the Astros have posted only three losing records indoors, while suffering badly under God's blue sky, where their 458-680 mark computes out to a .402 percentage.
Why the difference? Virdon maintains that it is harder for his players to go out into the elements—where they encounter chill, sun fields, windblown pop-ups—than it is for others to come into the controlled 72° comfort of the Dome. But nearly all his players point out that they learned to play baseball outdoors, and that it is the team coming into the Astrodome that has the tougher adjustment to make. "In the Dome the depth perception is different," says Watson. "The ball is on you quicker. You talk to guys like Mike Schmidt, Dave Kingman and Greg Luzinski, and they'll tell you it takes two or three days to get adjusted. By that time they've gone 0 for 10 and the series is almost over."
Dave Parker becomes fiercely animated in describing a visit to Houston, where his Pirates are already 0-3 this year. "I dislike playing in there," he says. "I do semi-unnatural things to my swing. I'm a wait-and-snap hitter, but there I know I have to crush it to get it out. I feel I have to pump up my swing. There's also some bluish Plexiglas in the outfield that gives a reflection."