Not even in the most chauvinistic dreams of Warren Crandall Giles was the National League expected to come up with such a bewildering, interesting and potentially profitable pennant race as it now possesses. During one four-day period last week the league lead changed hands four times, and the current first flight of Los Angeles, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Philadelphia resembles a coiled spring. Not since 1959 has the National League enjoyed such close and tangled competition at the end of August, and that 1959 season ended, you may remember, in a tie between Milwaukee and Los Angeles.
This season the weak-hitting Dodgers have impressed everyone except their opponents with a rare quality of grit that always seems to help them escape from the onrushing train at the very last instant. But in the little more than live weeks remaining, the Dodgers will face certain negative factors that may be hard to overcome. Beginning this weekend Los Angeles has 16 games remaining at home and 17 on the road, but 12 of the 16 home games are against Milwaukee, San Francisco, St. Louis and Cincinnati—teams with which the Dodgers have had some trouble (13 wins, 11 losses) in Dodger Stadium this year.
However, the Dodgers do not have a single doubleheader remaining and this means that they conceivably could start Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Claude Osteen in 24 of their final 33 games; and none of the other contenders has three such high quality starters.
If the schedule can be called a slight plus for Los Angeles, it may work against the Giants. San Francisco's pitching docs not have the depth of Los Angeles' or Cincinnati's or Milwaukee's and probably is only on a par with Philadelphia's. Also the Giants must play 21 of their final 37 games away from home. As far as away games go this season, the Giants were only so-so until the All-Star break (21-23), but after the break they won eight of 11 games on the road from Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati, all three tough to beat. Which Giants will we see from now on?
Cincinnati is the team that impresses and confuses the experts most, because it has good (although apparently overrated) pitching and steady, powerful hitting. But Los Angeles and San Francisco have stopped the Reds this season (the Reds have won only 9 of 26 from the California clubs), and Cincinnati has 10 games left with the two of them. And the Reds, inconsistent all season long, have the fewest games left with the bottom three clubs.
The Phillies gained widespread fame—or notoriety—last year when they collapsed and lost after leading by 6½ games with 12 to play. In three previous seasons, however, the Phillies played their best baseball through the closing stages. One distinct advantage that Philadelphia has this year is that it is the only one of the five contenders that has most of its remaining games (20 of 35) at home. Another—and perhaps more important—is that beginning on September 17 Philadelphia plays 15 straight games against last-place New York, eighth-place Chicago and sixth-place Pittsburgh.
"By now," says Bobby Bragan, the manager of the Milwaukee Braves, "I thought the Dodgers would have backed up and that Cincinnati would be in front. I would have to say that the Giants, who are not deep in pitching, will have trouble with the schedule. The only team that the schedule truly favors is Philadelphia, but the Phillies must be close enough to first place near the end of the season to take advantage of that break."
Bragan's Braves have played the best baseball in the major leagues since the All-Star break (20-12) and their young pitchers seem to be arriving at just the right time. Tony Cloninger and Wade Blasingame are 13-2 since midseason, and there are signs that Denny Lemaster, a 17-game winner last year, has recovered from the sore arm that hampered him all season. Milwaukee has 22 games left with the other top contenders and 11 left with Chicago, New York and Houston. The Braves are the only team currently in contention that does not have to play St. Louis again, and the Cardinals are usually a tough team late in a pennant race. The Braves have more games left on the road than they have at home (15-21), but this seems a minor factor; when the Braves have played at home in County Stadium this year they have often been made to feel as though they were on the road. The irony of the Braves winning a pennant in Milwaukee before shuffling off to Atlanta next season is self-evident. What a way to go!