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Astros fall to earth as pitching falters

As a legitimate contender in the National League West, the Houston Astros have had it, victims of a highly touted pitching staff that didn't produce on schedule.

Of course Houston Manager Bill Virdon can't publicly concede this fact as long as a mathematical chance remains for the Astros in their division. But it isn't likely that Houston is going to win, say, 50 of their next 70 games.

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''We're a club that's been built to play in the Houston Astrodome, where the ball doesn't carry well for power hitters, and where you don't usually need a lot of runs to be successful,'' Virdon explained.

''What you need mostly to win there is consistently good pitching and line-drive hitters, who can produce with runners in scoring position,'' Bill continued. ''It's the old theory of winning a pennant by building up a big edge at home while playing at least .500 ball on the road.''

Basically this is what Houston did when it captured the NL West in 1980 and then won the second half of last year's strike-interrupted split season before losing a five-game playoff to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

For example, the Astros pitching staff last year had a remarkable 2.18 earned-run average, the lowest in the National League since 1968. It is currently hovering around four, mostly because of a bullpen that has fallen on hard times.

Still there was no reason coming out of spring training to believe that starters Nolan Ryan, Joe Niekro, Don Sutton, Bob Knepper, and Vern Ruhle couldn't do it again. The same reasoning applied to Virdon's three-man bullpen of Joe Sambito, Dave Smith, and Frank LaCorte.

''Early in the season, we simply didn't get the low-run games we expected from our starters,'' Bill said. ''It's not something you can explain. It just happens sometimes and you live with it. But lately the situation has been much better.''

''In fact, we probably wouldn't have gotten so far behind even then if we hadn't lost Sambito for the season with injuries and Smith hadn't tried to pitch with a bad back when he should have been resting,'' he added. ''We still don't know what to expect from Smith, and LaCorte, for some reason, hasn't been anywhere near as effective as he was last year.''

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The Astros' only .300 hitter during the first half of the season was third baseman Ray Knight, a line-driver hitter obtained during the winter in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder-first baseman Cesar Cedeno.

Houston did this to open up center field for the fleet-footed Tony Scott and so that last year's third baseman, Art Howe, could be moved to first.

Howe, who led the National League in hitting for a while last season before leveling off at .296, never liked the switch but isn't the kind to make waves.

Lately, because of an arm injury to Knight that limits his throwing, Virdon has gone back to Howe at third base, with Ray taking over at first.

Virdon is also experimenting for a second time this season with reserve infielder Dickie Thon as his permanent shortstop. After starting the year there with Craig Reynolds, Bill was forced to make a switch when Reynolds was sidelined with a physical problem.

However, Thon brought so little aggressiveness to the position the first time that he, in turn, was replaced by Kiko Garcia, who was once considered the heir apparent to shortstop Mark Belanger when both were with the Baltimore Orioles.

Although Reynolds would eventually reclaim his old job from Garcia, he lost it again when his batting average sunk lower than an Australian sunset. Given a second chance at shortstop by Virdon, Thon has provided more range in the field, more speed on the bases, and more bat at the plate.

Questioned as to whether Houston might feel compelled to go after an established power hitter this winter, either via the free-agent market or a trade, Virdon replied:

''Any power hitter who has to play 82 games a year in the Astrodome, in my opinion, is going to hit at least 10 fewer home runs than he would in another ballpark. He's also going to cost us a tremendous amount of money that might be better spent within our farm system.

''Also anytime you trade for a player like that, you're forced to give up so much in return that you generally tear up your ball club in two or three places. Naturally I'll be sitting down with the front office this winter to evaluate this team and how to improve what we've got. But maybe we'll discover the only thing we really need is for some key people on this club to regain their health.''

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