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.