Yankees, Dodgers are struggling, but there's still a long way to go
Baseball's lengthy 162-game schedule is probably as good an argument as any that almost no pennant race is ever anything but a Derby. That is, you don't necessarily look for winners among the early leaders. Generally it's the stretch run that tells the story.
With the 1982 American and National League races approximately one-third over , the teams that met in last year's World Series (the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees), are still struggling.
Meanwhile Detroit and Boston are staging a nip-and-tuck battle for first place in the AL East; Atlanta and San Diego are 1-2 in the NL West; Kansas City, Chicago, and California are all closely bunched for the AL West lead; and St. Louis holds sway in the NL East.
Even though it's still much too early to count either the Dodgers or the Yankees out, losing can tend to turn mole hills into mountains in major league clubhouses. Petty player gripes that don't get talked about when a team is winning suddenly engender all kinds of problems.
How much that has had to do with what has been happening in LA and NY is difficult to pinpoint. But even a rank amateur can see why these teams haven't been winning.
With LA, it's been a suspect bullpen that can't seem to hold a lead and has the fewest saves of any team in its league. With NY, it's the failure of six players, who are in the lineup more or less regularly, to hit with men on base.
Here's a division-by-division rundown:
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
After opening the season with 13 consecutive wins to grab a stranglehold on first place, Atlanta hasn't played even .500 ball since. While the Braves have hitters who can do the job in Chris Chambliss, Bob Horner, Dale Murphy and Co., their pitching may eventually betray them.
Second place San Diego is a young team that keeps finding new ways to win, and usually those ways involve speed. But the Padres probably lack the depth to win a pennant.
So far pitcher Fernando Valenzuela and rookie second baseman Steve Sax have kept Los Angeles respectable. But the Dodgers win the West again only if they get their bullpen straightened out. They also need more consistent hitting from Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, and Mike Scioscia.
San Francisco has been streaky so far, and considering the Giants' Mickey Mouse defense there is nothing to suggest that they won't continue to play that way. Houston is always a threat because of its deep pitching, but has surprised by not winning its usual high percentage of games in the Astrodome. Somehow Cincinnati doesn't look like a last-place club and might not be if someone could discover what's wrong with Johnny Bench.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
The St. Louis Cardinals, who currently have the biggest lead in any division, probably use their team speed about as well as any club in baseball. The Cards also have a lot of good hitters and their pitching isn't that bad, either, especially when Bruce Sutter is walking out of the bullpen. Defending division champion Montreal on the strength of its balance, might be able to catch St. Louis. The key to the Expos is their pitching and the extra RBI power they've been getting from Al Oliver.
Although Philadelphia should never be counted out, as long as Steve Carlton can throw strikes and Mike Schmidt can swing a bat, it seems to lack the depth of either St. Louis or Montreal. The New York Mets are tough when George Foster, Dave Kingman, and Ellis Valentine are hitting, and hard pressed to win when they are not. The real Pittsburgh Pirates haven't been seen yet because of injuries and even at full strength probably aren't that good. The Chicago Cubs will probably continue to face the usual problems of any club trying to win and rebuild at the same time.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
For the past month Detroit and Boston have been taking turns sharing the lead while establishing themselves as solid contenders. But it's also possible that this division hasn't yet seen the best of New York, Milwaukee or Baltimore, suggesting that it could be a pier six brawl before things are finally settled.
Ralph Houk, because of the excellent way he has handled the Red Sox, particularly their pitching staff, is an early candidate for AL Manager of the Year. And Milwaukee has been a different ballclub since the Brewers replaced manager Buck Rodgers with coach Harvey Kuenn.
Baltimore, after a poor start that reached a low water mark of 11-18 in mid-May, has been playing .667 ball for the past month to climb back into the picture. While Cleveland gets high marks for its recent 13-game winning streak, the Indians will have to do it one more time to be taken seriously by most scouts. The Toronto Blue Jays, better than last year, still have some holes to plug.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
The Kansas City Royals right now have more .300 hitters among their regulars than any team in baseball, which is one way of getting to first place if your pitching is only average. Whether the Royals can hold off the California Angels and the Chicago White Sox remains to be seen.
Chicago is also good at scoring runs and there may not be a hungrier team in any league. California, which was supposed to be awesome at the plate with bats of Reggie Jackson, Don Baylor, Bobby Grich, and Doug DeCinces in its lineup, so far has built its reputation with pitching.
Oakland's defending division champions may threaten before the end of the season too if manager Billy Martin can get his oft-injured pitching staff running on schedule.
Seattle, which has shown a lot of aggressiveness lately, has become the spoiler of the AL, capable of beating any team -- especially when ace pitcher Floyd Bannister is working. Texas has reportedly given manager Don Zimmer until July 4 to get his club on a winning streak or get fired. Meanwhile in Minnesota, the Twins already have a lock on last place, despite some very promising rookies.