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This may well be baseball's best-balanced division, which is to say it may well be the weakest. On every team a strength is countered by a flaw, so that a uniform mediocrity is achieved, the top club being scarcely better than the bottom. This is also to say that the race here should be tight and intensely interesting. The Dodgers, the class of this virtually classless society, were beset by every conceivable misfortune last year. Their best relief pitcher, Lefthander Terry Forster, was felled by a recurring arm ailment and was finished for the season by August. Their centerfielder, Rick Monday, played only 12 games before succumbing to an injury to his left Achilles tendon. Their pitching phenom and 1978 World Series hero, Bob Welch, had a sore right elbow, which was bad enough. Then, after the season, he entered a rehabilitation center for alcoholics. Starting Pitcher Doug Rau was finished for the season and possibly forever by a torn left rotator cuff. Don Sutton, holder of many Dodger pitching records, remained in a season-long funk and demanded to be traded. And star Rightfielder Reggie Smith had knee, neck, ankle and ego hurts and finally joined Sutton in Funk City. Actually, that is where most of the Dodgers spent the season. A team that had once represented itself as the soul of suburban affability, Los Angeles snarled and grumbled as churlishly last year as such curmudgeonly clubs of the past decade as the Yankees and the A's. The Dodgers' morale problems came to a roundhouse-right climax in February when former Coach Jim LeFebvre, now with the Giants, socked Manager Tommy Lasorda in the mouth in a Los Angeles television studio. The manager did not bleed Dodger blue, shattering yet another myth.
But that is all in the past. Forster is back, Monday is trying again, Welch is healthy and cold sober, Sutton may soon be traded, and Smith is, well, Smith, albeit, at 35, a year older. Even with their misadventures, the Dodgers finished last season with a rush. Twenty-one games below .500 at the All-Star break, they ended up only four under, having played at a .617 pace during the second half of the season. And in the off-season they strengthened themselves measurably with the acquisition of free-agent pitchers Dave Goltz (14-13 at Minnesota) and Don Stanhouse, the former Oriole reliever who had 21 saves in 1979 and protected 25 of 27 leads with which he was provided. Goltz will enter the starting rotation along with Rookie of the Year Rick Sutcliffe (17-10), Burt Hooton (11-10), Jerry Reuss (7-14) and, probably, knuckleballer Charlie Hough, a refugee from the bullpen. If he stays around, Sutton will figure in there somewhere.
There was talk last year of breaking up the Dodger infield, which has been intact since 1973, longer than any such aggregation in major league history. It is just as well it was only talk, for, offensively at least, this infield is peerless. First Baseman Steve Garvey, Second Baseman Davey Lopes and Third Baseman Ron Cey each hit 28 home runs, Garvey drove home 110 and Lopes stole 44 bases in 48 attempts. Bill Russell hit .271, which is Cobbian for a shortstop these days. So if the pitching comes back and no more Dodger red is spilled, L.A. should power its way to the division title.
The Astros do not power their way past anyone. As a team they hit 49 home runs last season, beating league-leader Dave Kingman of the Cubs by one. The Dodgers, by contrast, hit 183. But Astro base runners stole 190 bases, and the Houston pitching staff had an ERA of 3.19 and a league-leading 55 complete games. J. R. Richard topped the league in strikeouts (313) and ERA (2.71); Joe Niekro won 21 games; Ken Forsch pitched the season's only no-hitter; and Reliever Joe Sambito saved 22 games and had an ERA of 1.78 in 63 appearances. To that impressive company, the Astros have added the million-dollar 33-year-old Nolan Ryan, the fourth leading strikeout pitcher in history (2,909). Has any staff ever had two harder throwers than Richard and Ryan? Manager Bill Virdon plans to sandwich the knuckleballing Niekro between the flamethrowers in the starting rotation, a diabolical scheme destined to discombobulate opposing batsmen and, it should be added, Astro Catcher Alan Ashby. "It's no fun catching this staff," Ashby laments. "But then it's no fun hitting against them either."
Besides Ryan, the Astros also pulled Joe Morgan out of the re-entry draft. Now they must find a place for him. Last year's second baseman, Rafael Landestoy, hit .270; Little Joe batted a mere .250. Morgan might go to third if Enos Cabell goes to first and Cesar Cedeno to center, his preferred position, but that would upset a solid outfield combination of Jose Cruz (.289, 36 stolen bases), Terry Puhl (.287, 30) and Jeff Leonard (.290, 23). Chances are, Cedeno will stay on first and Morgan will battle it out with Landestoy.
The Astros led the division for much of last season and then faltered at the finish, losing out to the Reds by a game and a half. "We were trying too hard," says Virdon. "You could see we were pressing at the plate." Pressing at the plate? The weak-hitting Astros scored fewer runs than anyone else in the league. If they can just eke out a few more this year, their extraordinary pitching should keep them close to the top—or, perhaps, at it.
The top is precisely where the Reds, winners of 90 games, finished last season. And they made it despite some debilitating injuries. Rightfielder Ken Griffey missed 66 games, finally undergoing surgery on his left knee on Aug. 14, and Leftfielder George Foster sat out 40 after aggravating a pulled thigh muscle in the All-Star Game. Griffey hit .316 in 95 games, and Foster, who has had more home runs (151) and RBIs (488) than anyone else in the majors over the last four years, clouted 30 homers and drove in 98 runs in only 121 games. Tom Seaver was out for almost a month with a lower-back strain, but he finished the season like the Tom Terrific of yore, winning 14 of his last 15 games, including 11 in a row. He had a 16-6 record and tied for the league lead with five shutouts. Bill Bonham, the other veteran starter, missed three weeks with a sore right shoulder and finished with only a 9-7 record. First Baseman Dan Driessen played much of the year with a bad wrist and hit .250 for the second season in succession after hitting .300 in 1977.
Centerfielder Cesar Geronimo also has put together back-to-back poor seasons—.239 and .226—and his job is one of two that are in jeopardy on a team that has long favored a set lineup. Dave Collins, who hit .318 mostly filling in for Griffey, is Geronimo's chief competitor. He is a switch hitter and a speedster, though not the strong-armed Geronimo's equal in the field. Junior Kennedy, looked on as the replacement for the departed Morgan, is facing stiff competition from 23-year-old Ron Oester, another switch hitter, who batted .281 and stole 23 bases in Indianapolis last year. Oester can also spell good-field, good-hit Dave Concepcion at shortstop. Ray Knight, who succeeded Pete Rose spectacularly at third, is hoping to surpass his .318 season. Johnny Bench, now the Reds' career leader in homers (332) and RBIs (1,191), will catch again this year, but he will also spell Driessen at first. After 12 straight years of working 100 or more games behind the plate, Bench has an aching back and this may be his last year as a full-time catcher.
Seaver, whose 2.55 career ERA is second only to Walter Johnson's among pitchers with 3,000 innings, will lead a starting rotation that includes Bonham, Mike LaCoss, who tapered off to a 14-8 record after a flashy 8-0 start, and 22-year-old Frank Pastore, who, fresh from the minors, won some critical games at the end of the season. Paul Moskau and Charlie Leibrandt are competing for the fifth starter's spot. Tom Hume and Doug Bair are in the bullpen.
Manager John McNamara did a remarkable job of holding his tattered legions together over the final months of last season, benefiting from extraordinary performances by Knight, Collins, Seaver and Bench, who hit .342 with 10 homers from Aug. 15 through Sept. 20. But Bonham and Griffey are still recuperating from injuries, Bench is pooped, and Seaver is 35. Another miracle seems unlikely.