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Johnny Bench grinned through his exhaustion. His three-run homer last Wednesday night had helped the Cincinnati Reds beat the Montreal Expos, 7-2, and established him as the Reds' alltime home-run leader, surpassing Frank Robinson. It was the 325th homer of his career. Yogi Berra, with 358, is the only catcher with more.
"Now you'd like to catch Yogi?" he was asked.
"I'd just like to catch Houston," he replied.
The Astros are playing hard to get. Bench and the Reds have been chasing them since May 31. As Bench spoke, Cincinnati trailed Houston by a game and a half, although the Reds had won 23 of 35 games since the All-Star break. Houston. Cincinnati finds it darn near inconceivable that it's trailing Houston. What's Houston ever done? Where's Houston ever been—except in the second division. Houston's idea of a war cry is to shout cellarward: "Hail to the hindmost. Here we come!"
"Considering who's in first place, I'd say we're in pretty good position," said slugger George Foster. "In a sense, they're chasing us, since we've been there before and they haven't." There may be good reason for this disdain. Houston led the Reds by 10 games on the Fourth of July, but after last Sunday the margin was a mere half game. "I don't buy that line about being in a better position if you're behind," said Second Baseman Joe Morgan. "But when you've been 10 games down, and you've already cut that to next to nothing, you do feel you have a pretty good chance."
All Cincinnati has to do is continue playing as it did last weekend. On Friday night, while the Astros lost to the Phillies, Cincinnati edged the New York Mets 1-0 when Dave Concepcion doubled Morgan home with two out in the eighth. Bill Bonham and Tom Hume combined for the shutout. On Saturday they clanked like the Big Red Machine of old, scoring five runs in the ninth to overtake the Mets 8-4. Well, not exactly like the Big Red Machine of old. The deciding run scored as Heity Cruz put down a squeeze bunt on a 3 and 1 count with the bases loaded. On Sunday, Tom Seaver won his 11th straight game, a career high, extending his record to 13-5 as Cincy won again, 8-0. Seaver not only pitched a four-hitter but also drove in two runs with a double. Thus the Reds had won eight of their last nine games, and the folks in Houston had more than 90° weather to sweat about.
Nevertheless, despite the presence of Foster, Bench, Morgan, Concepcion, Dan Driessen, Cesar Geronimo and Ken Griffey, the Big Red Machine simply ain't no more. It is a thing of the past, like the Amazin' Mets and the Big Dodger in the Sky. Bench and Morgan are past their spectacular primes; Driessen and Geronimo have become merely average players; Griffey is out for the remainder of the year after knee surgery. Gone, too, are Tony Perez, Pete Rose, Sparky Anderson and almost the entire pitching staff. What's left is a mixture of the old, the new, the borrowed and the booed. But the mix works. In the past five weeks these diverse elements have fused into a pennant contender.
The Reds have been brought together by adversity. Indeed, the team began its surge after Foster, the league's leading RBI man the past three seasons, pulled a thigh muscle in the All-Star Game and went on the 15-day disabled list. The winning lineup began to take shape when Manager John McNamara moved Dave Collins, a 26-year-old speedster, to Foster's spot in leftfield. When Griffey was injured, Cruz went to rightfield, and now, with Foster back, he shares the position with Collins. The results have been astonishing. Cruz has hit .357 with 20 RBIs in his last 26 games. He also has five game-winning hits—one less than Bench and two more than Morgan, both of whom have three times as many at bats.
In Collins the Reds have a lead-off man who can hit better than .300 from both sides of the plate. Of course, Pete Rose could do that, too, but Collins can steal bases. But where to play Collins next year when Griffey returns may require a tough, if luxurious, decision—first base, where Collins has been replacing Driessen when a lefthander is pitching, or centerfield, which he would like to try despite a weak throwing arm, and where Geronimo now plays less than full time. Collins' .330 batting average, 114 points higher than last year's, has earned him a place somewhere. The outfield would seem ideal, given the offensive decline of Geronimo and Collins' 9.6 speed.
Wherever he plays, Collins has had enough of the bench. "Last year I pinch-hit 74 times for the club, and I'd think, 'I'm too young to be doing this,' " he says. "Now I've established myself as an everyday player, we're in a pennant race and I couldn't be happier. I don't think I'm going back to the bench."