Danny Ozark sat in his office and produced a rare smile. After a disastrous 5-9 road trip, his Phillies (4-4) had just opened a home stand to a thunderous chorus of boos. But the Phils had won, beating the Mets and getting, of all things, a complete game from a pitcher, Nino Espinosa, on two days' rest. "Maybe they need to pitch on just two days' rest," said Ozark wryly. Then gloom returned. The next night, starter Larry Christenson strained a groin muscle while batting, and Randy Lerch broke a wrist in a scuffle with a gang of youths after the game. Dick Ruthven was already suffering from an inflamed right elbow, so the Phils found themselves minus three starters.
Which explains why Reliever Tug McGraw started against the Giants, only his second such assignment in five years. He lasted four innings as the Phils lost 8-6. Two brighter notes: Mike Schmidt hit home runs in four consecutive plate appearances (over two games) to become the first player to do so twice, and Steve Carlton threw his fifth one-hitter, blanking the Mets.
The Pirates (3-3) celebrated the Fourth of July in St. Louis. First-place Montreal (page 20) had lost the previous night, and the Pirates had pulled to within 5� games. Before the Independence Day game, John Candelaria and Willie Stargell stood looking out to right centerfield. "No way you can put a ball over that scoreboard," challenged Candelaria. No? In the seventh inning Stargell put a roman candle of a shot over it, 500 feet into the upper deck, for his 443rd career home run and second of the game, and the Pirates won 6-4. But the Pirate hitting slacked off, and after having won 12 of their last 18 games, they dropped three straight to St. Louis and Cincinnati and scored just 18 runs during the week.
Chicago (6-3) got twice as many runs as the Pirates and won twice as many games, getting 36 runs in cozy Wrigley Field. The Cubs have either won or tied 11 straight series and haven't lost two games in a row since May. And after receiving a couple of gift games from New York, they beat the best, taking two from Montreal and two from Houston. They did it with the help of a rookie, Scot Thompson, and a player who has seen little action in recent years, Mike Vail. The two have been platooning in rightfield since the departure of Bobby Murcer to the Yankees. In the first game of a doubleheader against the Astros, Thompson had five singles in five at bats and was greeted by the Bleacher Bums with cries of "Bobby Who?" In the second game, Vail responded with a two-run homer, two singles and four RBIs, and the chant changed to "Scot Who?" There's not a pitcher in the league who has to ask Dave Who? Kingman's home-run pace slowed a bit, but he blasted two for a total of 29. He also drove in six runs and even threw a runner out at the plate.
St. Louis (5-4) also received some help from a rookie. Catcher Terry Kennedy, called up from Springfield the week before to replace injured Ted Simmons, hit his first major league home run in grand style—a grand slam in the eighth inning against the Phils. Manager Ken Boyer tried him as a pinch hitter in the second game of the day's doubleheader with the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, two outs and a runner on second. Alas, this time he popped up, but—hold it—the ball dropped safely and the Cardinals won again making Reliever Mark Littell a two-time winner for the day.
The Mets (1-7), who had given signs of making a run for fifth place, fell apart after winning three straight and dropped to 16� games back.
MONT 47-29 CHI 41-36 PITT 40-37 ST.L 41-38 PHIL 43-40 NY 31-46
Tradition has it that a team comfortably ensconced in first place on July 4 will finish there. Houston (4-3) is giving every indication it intends to do just that. Its speed is the best in the league and its pitching may be, too. The defense is exceptional, the top reliever has not allowed an earned run in 24 games and the Astros have the ability to get key hits. "The only thing we lack is power," says Manager Bill Virdon, whose team has yet to lose more than three in a row. "If you play the game right, you don't need that." The Astros didn't seem to need it. Joe Niekro won his 12th and 13th games against three losses, Ken Forsch allowed just two earned runs on six hits in his second strong outing since coming off the disabled list, and Joe Sambito picked up three saves to bring his total to 10. He has the lowest ERA in the majors: 1.08. Houston had a six-game winning streak on the road, its longest since 1973, before losing three of four, including a double-header to the Cubs.