The situation was not one to gladden the heart of a relief pitcher, even one as sanguine about his ability to fulfill his obligations as Joe Sambito of the Astros. As Sambito accepted the ball from his good friend, starting Pitcher Joe Niekro, in the ninth inning of Houston's game with Cincinnati last Saturday evening in the Astrodome, he quickly observed that there was no more room on the bases. Obviously, he must throw strikes. And because there were no outs, it would behoove him also to keep the ball low, because a fly ball could well score a run, and it is his job, as he sees it, to prevent such occurrences. Then, too, this was no ordinary game. If the Astros won it, they would be only a half game behind the Reds in the National League West entering the final week of the season. His team was leading, 4-1, but the potential winning run was at bat in the person of pinch hitter Heity Cruz.
"I'm as human as the next guy," Sambito allowed after the game, although the events of the evening would tend to suggest otherwise. "I fail, too. I'd be kidding if I said I wasn't nervous out there."
Sambito went to a two-ball, two-strike count on Cruz and then struck him out swinging. He whiffed a second pinch hitter, Rick Auerbach, also swinging, and his first pitch to a third pinch hitter, Junior Kennedy, resulted in a fly out to a jubilant Jeff Leonard in rightfield. Sambito leaped high off the mound, his cap flying from his newly barbered head; 46,037 Astromaniacs set up a din now commonly—but once rarely—heard in their great hangar of a ball park: and Reed Robinson, a dwarf in a blond wig and a Union Army cavalryman's uniform, hauled out a toy cannon and fired it in ritual salute of the great victory.
The Astros, down by 2½ games to the Reds with but 10 to play on Friday, had roared from behind on successive nights to transform what was developing into a Reds' cakewalk into a legitimate race, despite a 7-1 Cincinnati victory in Sunday's series finale. But while the Reds-Astros struggle for the championship of the National League West was close, the race in the league's Eastern Division was even tighter, what with Montreal and Pittsburgh also locked in 11th-hour combat. Not since 1974, when there were similarly close races in both National League divisions and in the American League West, had there been so many teams so close with so little time remaining.
That the Astros have a part in this drama will surprise many of their critics, not the least of whom is last weekend's hero, Sambito. "The media had us picked for fourth or fifth," he said after his Saturday-night deeds, "and to be honest with you, I didn't disagree all that much. After spring training I was not that impressed with what I saw on the field. But we have guts and determination. This team has come a long way, and it's been such a pleasure."
Nothing, for certain, has come to the Astros on a platter. They are within four wins of the league record of 42 one-run victories, set last season by the Giants. Dave Kingman alone has hit more home runs (47) than they have. In fact, the Astros should become the first team since the 1949 White Sox to finish the season with more triples than homers. By Sunday, the score was 51 triples to 46 homers. And as of Sunday they had also gone 19 games without hitting a home run, and their last, back on Sept. 1, was hit by a pitcher, J. R. Richard. The last time one of the regulars hit a homer with a man on base was July 6. No wonder Houston's opponents were within 10 runs of outscoring them.
The Astros win with teamwork, defense, speed—181 stolen bases—and, preeminently, with pitching. In preserving Niekro's 20th win so dramatically, the lefthanded Sambito also recorded his 20th save. "We planned it that way," he explained cheerfully. Richard had 16 wins and was approaching his second consecutive 300-strikeout season. The team ERA after Sunday's game was a division-leading 3.14.
Friday night's series opener with the Reds was vintage Astro baseball. The game matched Cincinnati's Tom Seaver, who has regained his place among the game's finest pitchers, against the menacing 6'8" Richard. They proved worthy of each other as they entertained another huge, howling Astrodome crowd with a glittering pitching duel. The Reds scored first in typical fashion, Ray Knight hitting a two-run homer in the second inning. The Astros also scored in what has become their usual way. Richard got the first run himself, reaching second on an error by Dan Driessen and scoring on Terry Puhl's single in the third inning. Rafael Landestoy scored the tying run in the seventh by singling, advancing to second on Richard's sacrifice bunt and scoring on yet another Puhl single.
Pitching totally dominated the rest of the game. Seaver has said he doesn't enjoy the Dome with its unnatural light and background, but his discomfort was scarcely apparent this night. He retired for a pinch hitter after nine innings, during which he allowed only the one earned run while walking one and striking out five. Richard went 11 innings, permitting only six runners to reach base over the last nine innings, one of whom, Cesar Geronimo, was given an intentional walk. It was Richard's only walk, and he struck out 15. The seemingly omnipresent Sambito pitched the final two innings, shutting off the Reds with no more runs and only one hit while striking out three.
A socko 13th-inning finish gave Sambito his eighth win. Craig Reynolds led off" the climactic inning with a single to right. Cedeno sacrificed him to second, and Cruz was walked intentionally. Cabell grounded to Joe Morgan at second, who backhanded the ball to Shortstop Dave Concepcion to force Cruz. But Cabell, hustling Astrofashion, narrowly beat Concepcion's throw to first, thereby preventing what would have been an inning-stifling double play. His effort, said Morgan later, "saved the game for them." Danny Heep, pinch-hitting for Sambito, was intentionally walked to load the bases, and reserve catcher Bruce Bochy, a .213 batter at that moment, hit Tom Hume's first pitch into leftfield for a 3-2 Houston win. Concepcion tossed his glove high into the indoor air in frustration as the victory celebration formed at the plate.
The Astros, who felt they needed to take all three games in this final matchup with the Reds, had won the first. Less than 24 hours later, they had won the second, and what had seemed an unpromising quest now had possibilities. It remained for Sambito, the ebullient reliever, to explain his team's polished performance in the face of dwindling time and a fierce opponent. "Maybe we're so relaxed because we don't know what's at the end of the rainbow," he said.
But the final game of the series on Sunday left the Astros with the unpleasant sensation that their pot might not be filled with gold after all. A new pitching hero emerged in this game, and he wasn't on the Houston staff. Frank Pastore, a 22-year-old rookie righthander with the face of a cherub, was asked by Red Manager John McNamara to succeed where Cincy aces Seaver and Mike LaCoss, who lost Saturday's game, had failed before him. "I'm ready," Pastore told McNamara Sunday morning.
And so he was. Pastore held the pesty, if powerless, Astros to one run and nine hits in a complete game victory, striking out five and walking only one—Landestoy—intentionally. As Sambito had before him, Pastore sought valiantly to contain his emotions while pitching—"There is enough pressure without putting more on yourself," he said—but afterward he exulted in the knowledge that he had pitched the game of his life. "That was the apex of what I can do," he said. "Seaver got beat, LaCoss got beat, and the so-called nobody got the win."
The Reds took their usual early lead on a typically prodigious homer to dead centerfield by George Foster, his first in 12 days. Houston tied it up, but the Reds put the game out of reach in a bizarre five-run fourth. They got the only run they needed when, with Bench on third and Knight on first, Heity Cruz singled, Knight stopping at second. Then Pastore hit a short-range blooper to right that Leonard fielded and fired home to Catcher Luis Pujols. The ball arrived well ahead of Knight, and Pujols spun to tag him. He did, but Knight jostled Pujols' mitt with his elbow and the ball popped out of the pocket—but not all the way out of the mitt—for an instant, or just long enough in the view of Umpire Joe West to declare Knight safe. The argument that followed was academic, because, as it would turn out, the Reds already had enough runs to win and regain a 1½-game lead, but had Knight been the third out, it would have saved the Astros the embarrassment of an ensuing two-run triple by Dave Collins and another run Collins scored when Landestoy's relay to the plate went awry.
The Reds headed home to Cincinnati feeling reprieved. "We knew they had to sweep," said Knight. "It's ours to win now," said McNamara. "If we had left here a half game behind, we'd have to be looking for help from other people. I'm happy to be going home ahead."