The tight division race in the National League East this season has been like a giant whirlpool -- throwing first Montreal, then Pittsburgh, then Philadelphia , surging to the top.
Those who fear for the defending world champion Pirates cite their inconsistency, especially since the All-Star break; with the Phillies it's their starting pitchers; with the Expos their often unreliable bullpen.
Montreal especially has been in the headlines lately, not so much because of its first-place battle with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but because three of its players have made a devastating weapon of the stolen base.
By the end of the season it is entirely possible that their combined crimes on the bases may reach 200 or even beyond.
The three are outfielder Ron LeFlore, who leads off; infielder Rodney Scott, who bats second; and outfielder Andre Dawson, who often drives them both home as the team's No. 3 hitter.
In fact LeFlore, if he maintains his current pace, will break Lou Brock's all-time record of 118 stolen bases in a single season. Brock, now retired, had his super year in 1974 with the St. Louis Cardinals.
"Everybody talks about how fast LeFlore is and how he just gets out there and runs, coming into second base with such a powerful slide that a lot of times the infielder taking the throw will drop the ball," explained Expos coach Norman Sherry. "You let Ron get any kind of a lead and he'll outrun almost any catcher's throwing arm in the league.
"But actually I prefer to watch Scott, who might not be as fast as LeFlore but who upsets entire teams with the cat-and- mouse game he plays whenever he's on base," Sherry continued. "You just never know what Rodney will do. Going into September, Scott had stolen third base 22 time -- 7, I think, while the catcher acted careless while throwing the ball back to the pitcher."
Although it seems logical to assume that if Montreal does eventually win the NL East, it will be chiefly because of its team speed, manager Dick Williams disagrees.
"I like a team that runs well because it can make so many good things happen for you," Williams said. "All of a sudden you've got opposing infielders hurrying their throws and making mistakes.
"But if we win the National League East, it will be because of our pitching and defense, not because we were first in stolen bases. Of course speed is important, but not that important. Another thing you have to remember is that Pittsburgh and Philadelphia also have several players who steal regularly and who are capable of taking the extra base."
Williams, one of baseball's most resourceful managers, actually likes the current edition of the Expos even better than last season, when they finished only one game behind Pittsburgh in the lost column.
Yet during the winter Montreal traded away Dan Schatzeder, a good young pitcher, for LeFlore, and lost free agents Tony Perez to Boston and Rudy May to New York. May, pitching both in and out of the bullpen, has been one of the Yankees' most valuable players, while Perez has been among the league leaders in RBIs.
"Even without those three players, we still have better team balance, more bench, more speed, and more hitting than we had a year ago," Dick said. "We knew we weren't going to get LeFlore without giving up some quality, but there is no question at this point that we came out ahead. We needed a place to play Warren Cromartie [an outfielder displaced by the acquisition of LeFlore], and if we had kept Perez, the most he would have been was a part-time first baseman.
"Tony is still a fine ballplayer and has looked good in Boston because any right- handed hitter who can pull the ball is going to do well there," he continued. "But Cromartie has actually given us a lot more on defense. May probably would have helped our pitching, but sometimes a player's price is simply too high."
What has hurt Montreal's division chances all year and could continue to give them trouble is the bullpen, particularly from the right side, where stability has been a continuing problem.
"Woody Fryman has been good for us from the left side, but I can't really say that about our right-handers, who haven't always delivered in the clutch," Williams explained.
"Like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia we need to play somewhere near .650 baseball in September to stay in the race. And that means playing a lot better away from home than we have lately."