If the Astros do nothing else this season, they still will have accomplished two things no previous Houston club has in the unlustrous 17-year history of the franchise. They will have led their division by four games, having awakened last Saturday with just that margin over the Reds. And they will have remained in first place for more than 11 consecutive days. Sunday marked their 15th straight day at the top of the National League's difficult West Division, easily surpassing the previous record set by the 1972 Astros. To be sure, there are five months and 140 games remaining on the schedule, but through the first month Houston qualifies as the surprise team in baseball. "I don't really know the significance of a fast start," says Astro Manager Bill Virdon, a placid man whose color is all in his uniform, "but the farther behind we can push L.A. now, the better I'll like it."
When First Baseman Bob Watson was asked if he, too, considered the defending champion Dodgers the team to beat, he positively bubbled as he said, "The team to beat is us. Let them worry about the Astros for a change."
Such an attitude is quite a turnabout for Watson, who has averaged 97 RBIs over the past three seasons while playing for teams that posted records of 80-82, 81-81 and 74-88. Not exactly upward mobility. In their entire history the Astros have finished better than .500 only twice. Fed up, Watson vowed to two Houston writers after the 1978 finale that he had played his last game as an Astro. He said he had asked General Manager Tal Smith to trade him to a contender, and since Watson would be in the final year of his contract, Smith had little choice but to try to oblige him. "It hurts to say it, but I don't expect this team to contend for the next couple of years," Watson told Harry Shattuck of the Houston Chronicle.
Now the Astros have launched themselves to a 14-6 start, and Watson may "have found himself a contender where he least expected to. No one thought Houston would be a factor in a division that shaped up as a struggle among the Giants, Dodgers and Reds and already had one dark horse in the Padres. Sure, the Astros had the imposing 6'8" James Rodney Richard, the first righthander in National League history to fan more than 300 batters in a season—he had 303 last year—and the winningest righthander, with 56 victories, in the league over the last three seasons. But how far could a team go on one pitcher's back? Houston's other starters, Joe Niekro, Ken Forsch and Vern Ruhle, did not have a winning lifetime record among them. Relievers? Only St. Louis had fewer saves than the Astros' 1978 total of 23. Power? Houston was dead last in the major leagues with 70 home runs. Infield? Last in double plays. To make matters worse, they were bumblers on the road, winning fewer than three of every 10 games played away from home.
True, after six different Astros had tried their thumbs at shortstop last year and six others had impersonated catchers, Houston had made an effort to stop those merry-go-rounds by trading for Shortstop Craig Reynolds and Catcher Alan Ashby, who came from Seattle and Toronto, respectively. Still, this was a team of question marks.
It took two days for Forsch to erase one of them. Having been almost exclusively a reliever until late last August, Forsch threw a no-hitter at the Braves on the second day of this season. By the end of last week he had become a fixture in the starting rotation, with a 3-0 record and a 2.31 ERA. Further, relief pitchers Joaquin Andujar and Joe Sambito had given up a total of four runs in their first 33‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings and had combined for a 4-0 record. And, wonder of wonders, by winning two of four games in Chicago and Pittsburgh last week, the Astros had triumphed in six of their first 11 games on the road while going 8-1 in the friendly Astrodome. Buoyed by a pitching staff with an ERA of 2.72, Virdon was suddenly able to crow, "I can't see this team folding. The only thing we lack is power, and if you play the game right you don't need that."
You especially don't need it when you play in a park where only 59 home runs were hit last season. Opposing players dread visits to the Astrodome. Hitters lapse into deep depression as they speak of shadows on the ball and altered depth perception. They bemoan what they consider eerie lighting and bizarre reflections. Outfielders curse the "little white squares" that make up the roof. The hated Dome. To non-Astros, it is anything but out of this world.
The record shows it, too. Excluding Houston, National League teams won 57% of their home games and 44% of their road games last year. In contrast, the Astros had a .617 (50-31) percentage at home, fourth best in the league, but finished with the ninth-best overall record. Had they won half their away games, as both Cincinnati and Los Angeles did, Houston would have won 91 games and been in the thick of the pennant race instead of 21 games out. Since the Dome was built, the Astros have posted only three losing records indoors, while suffering badly under God's blue sky, where their 458-680 mark computes out to a .402 percentage.
Why the difference? Virdon maintains that it is harder for his players to go out into the elements—where they encounter chill, sun fields, windblown pop-ups—than it is for others to come into the controlled 72° comfort of the Dome. But nearly all his players point out that they learned to play baseball outdoors, and that it is the team coming into the Astrodome that has the tougher adjustment to make. "In the Dome the depth perception is different," says Watson. "The ball is on you quicker. You talk to guys like Mike Schmidt, Dave Kingman and Greg Luzinski, and they'll tell you it takes two or three days to get adjusted. By that time they've gone 0 for 10 and the series is almost over."
Dave Parker becomes fiercely animated in describing a visit to Houston, where his Pirates are already 0-3 this year. "I dislike playing in there," he says. "I do semi-unnatural things to my swing. I'm a wait-and-snap hitter, but there I know I have to crush it to get it out. I feel I have to pump up my swing. There's also some bluish Plexiglas in the outfield that gives a reflection."
Asked about that reflection, Astro Second Baseman Art Howe thought for a moment and then scowled as he said, "I've never even noticed it. Now I'll be looking for it every time. Thanks."
Bobby Murcer of the Cubs, who are 41-82 in the Dome over the years, says the place makes him claustrophobic. "It's a funny feeling going in there. It's the same type of thing as when you're in an elevator with a whole bunch of people. Don't you get a different feeling when you step outside?"
The Astros do. At least they have in the past, when they seemed to be afflicted with a tightening around the collar, a dryness in the mouth, every time they stepped onto an outdoor field. "The hitters would try to crank up when they got in a little park like Wrigley," Watson says in an effort to explain Houston's abysmal history on the road. "But the pitching is the big difference. At the Dome our pitchers would challenge a guy. But outside they got too careful. They'd be nipping away at the corners and falling behind in the count and then would give up a home run."
Not all of Houston's pitchers go along with Watson's theory, but how else can one explain away the fact that in 1978 they allowed 48 more walks in 50 fewer innings away from the Astrodome? The team ERA at home was a superb 2.85; away it was an atrocious 4.47. Meanwhile, Astro hitters batted 26 percentage points higher in Houston while slugging 10 fewer home runs than they did on the road.
"Our team is tailored for the Dome," says Sambito. "Offenses that come in here looking for two or three runs with one swing are in trouble, because those balls are going to be caught. I'm a fastball pitcher, and I love to pitch in the Dome, because I can challenge a guy—throw it in there and say, 'Here it is. If you want to hit it out, go ahead, but I don't think you will.' "
Forsch, another power pitcher—although he mixes a forkball and a curve in with his 94-mph fastball and slider—isn't so sure. "I've pitched in there when those hitters pick the ball up pretty well," he says. Nonetheless, the record shows that Forsch was 7-0 at home last year.
With Terry Puhl, Cesar Cedeno and Jose Cruz, the Astros have three line-drive-hitting outfielders who are capable of stealing 40 bases each and of cutting off batted balls that seem to pick up speed when they hit the carpet in the Dome's spacious outfield. "Oh, man, we can get everything" says Cruz, third in the league last year with his .315 average and Houston's RBI leader so far in 1979 with 17. Cruz' eight stolen bases tie him for the team lead with Third Baseman Enos Cabell, whom Pirate Manager Chuck Tanner calls "the most underrated player in the league. Cabell's not going to be a star. He's a star already, but nobody knows it."
The same could be said of Cruz, who has hit .306 over the last three seasons. A slashing lefthanded batter with a strong, if sometimes inaccurate, arm, Cruz is in the last year of his contract with Houston and is talking about becoming a free agent. "He's going to lead this league in hitting very soon," predicts Deacon Jones, the Houston coach who convinced Cruz in 1976 to start hitting to all fields. Cruz has a prediction of his own: "This team is going to the World Series. Maybe then people in this country will see how well I play baseball."
One of the real strengths of the Astros, as Ruhle points out, is that "We're a team filled with players who have something to prove as individuals." Ruhle himself was summarily released by the Tigers during spring training last year and signed with Houston as a free agent. Forsch is out to prove he can succeed as a starter. Cedeno is coming off knee surgery that restricted his 1978 season to 50 games and may finally be ready to accomplish the great things predicted for him when he came to the Astros as a 19-year-old in 1970. The enigmatic Cedeno has been a mystery mainly to pitchers so far in '79, and he is batting .316. Ashby and Reynolds were traded away by expansion teams, and Cruz, Watson and Richard are all in the final year of their contracts. They are looking to make big bucks as free agents if Houston is unwilling to fork over the dough.
It is Richard who would command the most money. Once known primarily as a strikeout pitcher, he is now recognized as a winning pitcher. "He is fast becoming the best righthander in the National League," says the Pirates' Parker. "He's the only pitcher I've ever seen whose slider is as fast as his fastball. It comes in there at 90 miles an hour. He's a talent." Parker whistles. " 'Course it doesn't hurt that he's 6'8" and looks like he's right on top of you inside that Dome. But his control has improved 100%."
Not, however, with perfect consistency. In a 2-1 win over the Dodgers, Richard fired six wild pitches—he has 12 for the year—while fanning 13. "Intimidation is part of any pitcher's game," Richard says. "But I don't think about whether I scare guys." They do.
Richard plays down whatever advantage pitching in the Astrodome gives him. "I have to get them out on the road, too," he says, although last year he allowed 2.5 more runs per nine innings away from the Dome than he did beneath it. Still, his 6-6 away record was the staffs best, and the Astros' goal is to match Richard's .500 on the road as a team this year. If the Astros do that, they know they'll win 90 or so games.
"We were a young club last year," says Virdon. "Young clubs always have trouble when they travel."
It is significant that on April 15, the day Houston assumed first place, it swept a doubleheader in San Francisco. The Astros won four of seven on that first Western swing, and through last Sunday they were 2-2 on their first trip East, an important 14-game stint during which the league may find out if Houston is for real.
There is speculation that the very comfort of the Dome is the source of the Astros' undoing once they hit the road. "Everything is just right," the Chronicle's Shattuck says. "The dugouts are huge. The temperature is controlled. The fans and the press don't put too much pressure on them. It's...comfortable. The scoreboard even tells the fans when to clap. So when they travel, the elements, the crowd noise, the temperature are all obstacles. It makes them nervous."
No more nervous than opponents get coming into the Dome. "Something's obviously happening in here," says Ashby. "I haven't been around long enough to put my finger on it, but it's happening."
Weird forces seem to be at work, and some of them appear to defy the laws of physics. "The ball carries farther when there's a big crowd in the Dome. I know that for a fact," says Forsch.
"That's the rumor, all right," Ashby concurs. He has yet to homer this season; last year he hit nine for Toronto, the same number the Astros have thus far in '79. "So bring on the big crowds."
They're starting to come, all right. But, as every Houston fan knows, a win in the Dome is not one for the road.