The key to this pennant race is Ron Oester," George Foster is saying, nodding at his Cincinnati Reds' teammate, poker face firmly in place. "For us to have any chance at all, Ron'll have to keep pounding the fences like he's done all year."
Oester, a rookie second baseman, surely has been outstanding, but because of his aggressiveness and defense, not his grand total of two home runs. He didn't need much time to figure out something his elders on the Reds learned a long time ago: when it comes to long-ball hitting, it's better to let George do it.
By following that dictum this season, the Reds, the defending National League West champions, are again in position to draw a bead on the divisional title—even though they and their big gun have had something less than their best seasons. At week's end the Reds were in third place, five games out of first, with a schedule that matched them against first-place Los Angeles six more times and second-place Houston five.
In fact, Cincy will play entirely in its division through the end of the season, which pleases Manager John McNamara. "That's all you can ask for, a chance to play the teams you have to beat," he says. "If we can't beat 'em, we don't deserve to win."
Which is not to say the Reds would object to a little help from some other teams. After all, scoreboard watching is twice as hard when a club's chasing two rivals instead of one. "You have to figure that one of the two teams will stay hot," says Johnny Bench. "If you're behind one team, you wouldn't feel like you have to win every night. When it's two, you do."
Bench has a point. Despite a 7-4 record so far on a road trip that would spill over into this week, the Reds had actually lost a game in the standings. Still, you have to like Cincinnati's chances. Besides having gone 21-13 since the beginning of August and having swept a tough four-game series against the Pirates last week, the Reds have won 40 of 65 games against Western Division teams, including a season-opening eight straight against Atlanta and San Francisco. But the most critical factor is that Foster is now hot, and as he says, "The team goes where I'm going." Widely regarded as moody and introspective, Foster enlisted the aid of a public-relations agency at the start of the season to help "gain the recognition for the things I've done," such as averaging 35 homers and 113 RBIs over the past five years. The P.R. people had to push a whole lot harder than expected when their new client started horrendously, batting .210 with only eight homers and 26 RBIs by June 12.
At that point Foster decided to stop being a "defensive hitter—looking for the perfect pitch to hit," and started hacking away. "Wherever the ball is thrown, if it's in an area where I can handle it, I'm swinging," he says. "The ump may call it a ball, but if I swing I might call it a home run. My role is to produce runs. When I do, I can carry the club."
Foster showed that ability on Aug. 29 in an 8-7 win against the Pirates. With Cincy trailing 5-0 in the fourth inning, Foster started the Reds' comeback with a two-run double and then tied the game in the fifth with a three-run homer. In the ninth, he drove in the deciding run with a grounder. Since July 1, Foster has produced at a better-than-normal rate, batting .312, with 12 homers and 47 RBIs, but because of his slow start he still trails Bench, who has been a model of consistency, 22-21 in the race for team home-run honors. Foster and Bench have been getting help of late from another early-season stumper, Dave Concepcion. Back on May 26, when he was hitting .209, Concepcion asked the Cincinnati writers for a vote of confidence, actually polling them as to whether they thought he should be in the lineup. They voted a resounding yes, and a good thing it was that they did. Through last weekend Concepcion had batted .404 over his last 11 games.
The Reds have always hit, but traditionally they've had trouble stopping their opponents from doing the same. As Foster says, "Sometimes I feel it's imperative that we score five or six runs a game." That would just about do it; the Reds' staff ERA of 4.04 is the league's poorest.
Help is on the way, though, with the return to form of Tom Seaver, who has apparently fought off the nagging injuries of the last two seasons. This year's sore spot was his pitching shoulder, which put him on the disabled list for the month of July. At that point he had a 3-5 record and a 4.78 ERA. "That was a pretty emotional time for me because it was the first time I had to realistically face the prospect of not being able to throw again," Seaver says. "I've always enjoyed those 2½ hours of doing what I do best. That's my own time—I guess that's selfish."
The Reds don't mind at all. Since his return, Seaver has thrown "better than I had any right to expect to," winning four games, including a 10-strikeout performance in a 5-3 win over the Cubs last Friday.
The rest of the Reds' staff hasn't been as fortunate. No. 2 starter Bill Bonham has pitched only 19 innings all season, and Frank Pastore, who has a 10-6 record but hasn't won since July 2, has worked only three times in the last seven weeks. As a result, Cincinnati has used 15 different pitchers this year. "We've opened up a shuttle between Cincinnati and Indianapolis," says Bench.
One of the latest arrivals is Joe Price, 23, a soft-spoken lefty who is 6-2 since being called up from the Reds' Triple A affiliate on June 14. Price is handling his first major league pennant race with aplomb, despite some occasional jitters. "When I came up I just wanted to do well enough to move into next year's picture, and now there's all this," he says. "I'm trying to keep my head and just throw because if I sat down and thought about where I was and who I was with...."
Oester, 24, on the other hand, feels a little more at home being in Cincinnati during a stretch drive; after all, he's playing in his native city. "I spent a lot of time in old Crosley Field, watching and dreaming that I'd get to play for the Reds," he says. "I liked Frank Robinson but I was a shortstop so Leo Cardenas was my idol."
Oester started the season on the bench behind Second Baseman Junior Kennedy but eventually took over full time because of his slick fielding and .288 batting average. There is still enough of the hometown fan in him, though, that for much of the season Oester has referred to the Reds as "them"—as in "they're playing good ball," as opposed to "we're playing good ball."
Rest assured, though, Oester is now a part of the Reds. He knows because Foster told him so.