No big league manager is doing a better job this year than Gene Mauch of the California Angels. This statement can be argued of course, but there is no debating California's solid lead in the American League West. This is quite an achievement for a team Sports Illustrated's panel of experts rated no better than 24th among baseball's 26 franchises in the pre-season.
Mauch sometimes receives flak for playing what he calls ``Little Ball,'' in which the Angels chip away offensively. He also has been criticized for almost never staying with the same lineup two games in a row. But give the man credit: he has the courage of his convictions.
``Gene simply knows more aspects of the game than anyone I've ever been around,'' explained veteran Angels' catcher Bob Boone.
For those to whom ``Little Ball'' is hardly more than a slogan, the basic premise of Mauch's theory is that unless your team is an offensive powerhouse, it's usually better to move runners into scoring position and increase chances of getting one run than it is to play for the big inning.
In fact, against the league's toughest pitchers, Gene will often call for a bunt as early as the first inning. And by the third, he's apt to signal for the sacrifice play against anybody.
Mauch has been very patient this year with the greening of youngsters Gary Pettis in center field and Dick Schofield at shortstop. Pettis, who was just starting to hit consistently in June when he was injured, has twice reached over outfield walls to rob hitters of home runs.
Schofield, who probably makes the routine plays better than any other shortstop, still keeps struggling to bring his batting average up to the .200 mark. But by using Dick low in the order and resting him occasionally, Gene has relieved the pressure and helped him maintain his confidence.
However, Mauch's most glowing contribution this season (shared with pitching coach Marcel Lachemann), has been his Midas touch with all the young arms on the Angels. While a lot was expected from Mike Witt, who had a no-hitter last year, and Ron Romanick (12 wins in '84), no one really knew quite what would happen with rookies Urbano Lugo and Kirk McCaskill.
By making the club, Lugo became the third Angel pitcher in five years to jump from Class AA ball to the majors, an almost unheard of figure. McCaskill also has made tremendous progress since last season, when he lost four more games than he won in the minors. The capsule explanation for the sudden success of the two young pitchers is that they both learned to throw strikes.
Mauch has also made the most of his bullpen, which is considerably stronger this year thanks to the acquisition of veteran free-agent reliever Donnie Moore.
The Angels' success to date is one more indication that strong pitching, plus a manager who isn't afraid to do his own thing, can overcome a shortage of firepower.
With the American League's miserable recent record in All-Star Games fresh in our minds (the AL has lost 13 of the last 14), the observations of former National League batting champion Tommy Davis are timely. ``It all goes back to the fact that the National League is a fastball league and the American League a junkball league,'' Davis once told me. ``National League hitters know they have to be aggressive or they're going to fall behind in the count, so they have learned to attack any pitch they think they can hit. American League hitters tend to take too many good pitches, hoping that maybe some junk will be along in a minute -- but you can't do that against National League pitchers and win.''
The New York Yankees are clearly hoping that a return to the Big Apple will help Neil Allen regain the form he once showed there. Allen had an unimpressive 6.08 earned-run average with St. Louis this year, but between 1979 and 1982 he saved 67 games for the Mets -- an indication of his potential. While Dave Righetti has done well in relief so far with 14 saves, no other Yankee pitcher has more than three. So with the club now challenging for AL East honors, the front office moved to bolster its bullpen by acquiring Allen for a minor league player to be named later.
Basically it's another of those deals in which a team hopes a change in leagues will revive a pitcher's effectiveness. Sometimes it does happen.
Third baseman Buddy Bell has been traded so often in the newspapers in the last three years that he may feel relieved to finally be dealt to the Cincinnati Reds, who once employed his father, Gus, in their outfield. The Reds acquired Bell from the Texas Rangers for reserve outfielder Duane Walker and a player to be named. The official announcement by the Chicago Cubs' that they would play any home World Series games elsewhere rather than install temporary lights at Wrigley Field seems academic at this point. Numerous injuries to the vaunted pitching staff have left the Cubs struggling. They probably don't have enough time to catch up in the National League East.