The Houston Astros are away to a fast start once again, and this year everyone from Manager Bill Virdon on down is confident they have the extra ingredients to go all the way.
A year ago the "hitless wonders" of the Astrodome stormed out to a 15-6 record and a four-game lead in the National League West by the end of April, held first place most of the year, but hit the skids in September and finished second by 1 1/2 games.
This season the Astros have fashioned an identical 15-6 mark (through games of May 3), and are again perched atop the standings. The difference, however, is that Virdon believes this team may have the extra soupconm of batting punch that was missing in 1979 plus a pitching staff even more imposing than last year's division-leading corps. If so, he reasons, the improvements might be enough to push his charges over the top at last -- and give Houston its first champion since major league baseball came to the city in 1962.
Former two-time MVP Joe Morgan and perennial American League strikeout king Nolan Ryan, both signed as free agents, are two of the big reasons for this year's optimism. A happier Cesar Cedeno, back in center field after missing most of 1978 with a knee injury and spending the best part of 1979 in unfamiliar surroundings at first base with less than total enthusiasm, could also be a factor.
"We're definitely an improved team," Virdon told me in assessing this year's division race. "Los Angeles added some pitching and should be up there again, and you have to think about Cincinnati since they won last time, but there's no question that we're going to be better, too.
"We have great speed, defense, and pitching," he added. "Power? Sure, we'd like to have more, but we proved last year you can win without a lot of power. I'm really more interested in getting key hits than in home runs."
It's good Virdon feels that way, because last year the Astros were a distant last in both leagues in home runs with 49 (Chicago's Dave Kingman almost matched them singlehandedly with 48), and this season with mostly the same personnel they don't figure to do that much better. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that they play half their games in the Astrodome, where the ball doesn't carry very well (and where opposing teams don't hit too many out of the park either). But as they've been demonstrating for a couple of years now, there are other ways to win baseball games.
Speed is one key factor. Houston's 190 stolen bases were tops in the National League last year and second only to Kansas City's 207 overall. The Astros had four players (Enos Cabell, Jose Cruz, Terry Puhl, and Cedeno) with 30 or more steals, and another (Jeff Leonard) with 23. Now they also have Morgan, who once regularly stole 60 or so a year for Cincinnati and was still quick enough last season to swipe 28.
Defense is another important category where the Astros rank well up there, though statistical evidence is always hard to come by, since what counts most is not fielding averages but the intangible factor of the amount of ground covered.
It is on the pitching mound, though, where the Astros look hard to beat. Last year they were tough enough with such stalwarts as strikeout king J. R. Richard (18-13), knuckleballer Joe Niekro (runnerup for the Cy Young Award at 21 -11), Ken Forsch (11-6), and relief ace Joe Sambito (8 wins, 22 saves, 1.78 earned run average). Now on top of all this they have Ryan, the seven-time American League strikeout leader. On paper it is a truly awesome staff -- and except for a slow start by Ryan in his new surroundings, it has certainly started off that way. Richard is 4-0 with a 1.66 ERA, Niekro and Forsch also have big winning records, and Sambito has been the key man in relief as expected.
So it boils down to scoring some runs, and in the early days of 1980, at least, the Astros have shown marked improvement in this department. Cedeno, Cabell, Cruz, Alan Ashby, and Denny Walling are all hitting over .300. Some of the others, notably Morgan and Puhl, haven't yet hit their hoped-for strides, but even so the .263 team batting average is above last year's -- and fifth in the league at the moment.
Even in home runs, the Astros have been holding their own so far with all but the top power clubs. And they got one particularly memorable circuit clout a couple of weeks ago when the historically weak-hitting Ryan showed his new teammates how it's done by blasting a three-run shot into the seats at the 'Dome for the first homer of his career.
With Cabell at third base, Craig Reynolds at shortstop, Morgan at second, and Rafael Landestoy to fill in where needed, the Astros have the nucleus of an outstanding infield. First base was considered a question mark in pre-season speculation (that's why Cedeno was used there last year), but Walling's hitting has solved the problem, at least for now, and there are other proven major leaguers like Art Howe and Dave Bergman around if he should falter.
Virdon also has some other options. He could try Morgan at first base, opening up second for Landestoy, who did a fine job there over the second half of 1979 and was, in the manager's words, "our most productive player in September." He could put Cabell on first, use Morgan at third, and again get Landestoy into the lineup. Or he could bring Cedeno back, since the Astros have three other starting-type outfielders in Cruz, Puhl, and Jeff Leonard.
All of these options, however, have minus factors. Cedeno reportedly has said he wants no part of another year at first base, and Virdon obviously wants to keep the one-time All-Star happy in hopes that he will regain some semblance of his old form ("I don't want to give him the added burden of playing first base," Bill said. "I want to put him in the most relaxed situation possible for hitting. Hitting is what we need."). Morgan also has made it clear that he would be happier playing his natural position, and furthermore his 5 ft. 7 in. height would be a disadvantage at first base. Finally, Cabell's outstanding defense at third would be missed if he were moved across the diamond. So Virdon would prefer not to disrupt any other positions or sensitive egos -- and the way things are going, it seems he may not have to.
One final element is Ashby, a .223 lifetime hitter who probably won't keep up his hot early pace at the plate, but a solid catcher who provides the strong defense and ability to run a game that are so important to any contender.
Put it all together and it looks as though the Astros may well be tough to beat, but in the tradition of all managers, Virdon prefers to play it cautiously. Asked if he thought this club that came so close a year ago had improved enough to go all the way this time, he just smiled and said:
"If we could tell for sure, we wouldn't have to play 162 games, would we?"