Watch Out, It's The Astros!

With a seven-game lead and six weeks of the season left, surprising Houston has NL West opponents holding their heads
August 31, 1986

Long before he donned the ghastly technicolor ensemble he now wears, Yogi Berra said, "In baseball, you don't know nothin'." His words came to mind last weekend because, with a little more than a month to go in the regular season, his Houston Astros had a comfortable seven-game lead over the second-place Giants in the National League West.

People who felt they knew somethin' figured that Houston and San Francisco would be fighting it out for last place this year. What those people didn't count on in the case of the Astros was the best pitching this side of New York, an aggressive manager who learned from the White Rat himself and a never-say-die attitude that has accounted for 19 victories in the Astros' final turn at bat this season. In fact, they won five of those in a row only a month ago to put some distance between themselves and the field, and that string was broken only when Mike Scott, who leads the majors in earned run average and strikeouts, easily beat the Phillies 9-3.

The Astros began last week in typical fashion, with consecutive shutouts of the Pirates by Scott and the combination of Jim Deshaies and Dave Smith. Though they lost to the Cardinals in St. Louis Friday night, the Astros showed the stuff they're made of when Denny Walling hit a three-run homer in the ninth to close the deficit to 6-5. Alas, the rally died there, and the next night the Cards beat Scott 7-1, although four of the runs were charged to the appropriately named Tom Funk. Houston salvaged the final game of the series on Sunday with a 5-1 victory, as Deshaies earned yet another win.

The Astros of a year ago finished 12 games back of the Dodgers and bored the night-lights out of a diminishing number of Astrodome fans. This year only the uniforms, which would embarrass a Munchkin, are the same, and next year, the public is assured, those clown outfits will be gone, to be replaced by garb more suitable to a contender...or a champion. The Astros aren't waiting until next year for a championship, however. Despite their weekend St. Louis blues, they're gearing themselves for a showdown with the Mets in October. (The Astros won four of the six games the two clubs played in the Astrodome this year, and the playoffs start and could finish in Houston.) "We have turned things upside down," says Hal Lanier, the rookie manager. And around, he might add.

Lanier went to Houston after 5 years of studying at the feet of Whitey Herzog as a coach. He had managed in the minor leagues for 5 years before that and had played in the big leagues for 10, the first 8 on some pretty fair Giant teams in the '60s and early 70s. "I had three Hall of Famers [Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal] for teammates on those clubs, and I have some fond memories," says Lanier. His father, Max, was a Cardinal pitcher and World Series hero in the '40s, so the new manager has baseball genes. He may also have a touch of genius. He was determined at the outset to light a fire under his previously languid charges, to get them running the bases Cardinal-style and to get them a little angry out there. "My philosophy has always been to be aggressive, to manufacture runs that way," says Lanier. "That's why Whitey hired me. It was his style, and I learned a lot more about it in my five years in St. Louis. I'd be a very foolish manager if I didn't bring some traits with me from the best manager in baseball, wouldn't I?" Lanier also has the benefit of dugout aide Berra, perhaps the luckiest talisman in the history of the game. Berra has participated in no less than 21 World Series—14 as a player, 2 as a manager and 5 as a coach. No. 22 may be in the offing.

Lanier recognized that while he had no Vince Coleman or Willie McGee running the bases for him, he did have at least three players—Bill Doran, Billy Hatcher and Kevin Bass—who could steal from 25 to 45 bases, and in July he picked up a fourth, the 40-year-old but still nimble Davey Lopes, in a trade with the Cubs. Lopes, who has 22 steals this season, needs only 2 more to surpass Honus Wagner as the basestealing champion of the 40-year-olds. But thievery was only part of the Lanier program. Taking the extra base, working the squeeze, making life miserable for second basemen and shortstops also fit into his philosophy of aggressiveness. At 44, Lanier still has the boy-next-door look of the innocent young shortstop he once was, but storms rage behind that tranquil facade. "He's what you call a red ass," says rookie reliever Charlie Kerfeld, a certified character. "He's fiery, if you know what I mean. I was hoping we'd get a manager like this."

Kerfeld (seven wins, five saves) is one of a number of Astros who, under Lanier, have emerged from the shadows. When he took charge Lanier knew he had three proven starters in Nolan Ryan, Scott and Bob Knepper, and one "closer" in the bullpen, Smith. That left him at least two starters and two relievers short of a respectable staff. The fourth starter turned out to be Deshaies, who had come to the team from the Yankees in the Joe Niekro trade last Sept. 15. Deshaies was a long-shot to even make the team. Before this season he had pitched a total of 10 big league innings (8.10 ERA). He had a fastball that did not exceed 85 miles an hour. And he had a touch of tendinitis. He not only made the team, but he has also been a godsend, with an 8-3 record and 102 strikeouts in 112 innings.

Kerfeld, a huge (6'6", 235 pounds) and boisterous 22-year-old from Carson City, Nev., reluctantly accepted the role as "setup man" for closer Smith. "My day will come down the road," he says. "I'm happy right now just getting a shot." Kerfeld both adds and inspires levity on a team he found last year to be altogether too sobersided. He wears lucky JETSON T-shirts or, on occasion, others inscribed with such messages as BERMUDA TRIANGLE SEARCH AND RESCUE TEAM. In the middle of an interview with Marv Albert on NBC-TV, bullpen mate Smith clobbered him in the face with a chocolate cream pie. "I may not be the most serious person in the world," Kerfeld cheerfully acknowledges, "but when I'm on the mound, I've got this little—no, huge—mean streak. Nobody can mess with me there. I'm in my own little world." From that world he has set up Smith often enough for the closer to get 25 saves.

Knepper and Scott, meanwhile, have been having career years. They are one-two, respectively, in the league in innings pitched, and Knepper is tied with Fernando Valenzuela for the league lead in wins with 15. Scott would have that many and more had he not lost two 1-0 heartbreakers and one 2-1 game. As it is, with 235 strikeouts, he is threatening to become the second Houston pitcher, after J.R. Richard, to strike out 300 batters in a season. Scott is coming off an 18-8 season in '85, but he feels, and most of the league ruefully agrees, that he is a far better pitcher this year. He has virtually abandoned his slider and resorted even more often to the split-fingered fastball he used so handily a year ago. "I can adjust the speed of the split-finger now merely by changing the spread of my fingers, and I can do much more with it this year," he says. The split-finger, which drops precipitously at speeds up to 85 mph, and a rising fastball that does well over 90 have made a holy terror out of this blond, bespectacled and professorial 31-year-old. "If more pitchers had that pitch," says the Padres' Tony Gwynn of the Scott split-finger, "there wouldn't be any hitters in the league—just pitchers and catchers playing catch."

Ryan has been on the disabled list twice this year (the second time, in late July, against his wishes), but he is, like Scott, striking out hitters at better than one per inning, as befits the game's all-time K leader. Because of the sore elbow-that has troubled him all season, Ryan is allowed to throw only a certain number of pitches in each game, the better to preserve him for the stretch run. "I'm taking the long view," says Lanier.

The manager has gone most of the season without a successful fifth starting pitcher. He had tried in that spot, at various times, Mark Knudson, Julio Solano, Mike Madden, Matt Keough and Manny Hernandez. None cut the mustard. Finally, on Aug. 15, Knudson and another pitcher, Don August, were traded to the Brewers for Danny Darwin, a 30-year-old veteran who had a 6-8 record this year. Lanier is convinced now that his pitching staff" is finally complete. Kerfeld is sure of it. "All you hear is Mets this and Mets that," he grumbles, "but I'll tell you one thing—their stats ain't any better than ours."

The offense ain't so bad either, despite the intimidating dimensions and still air of the Astrodome. First baseman Glenn Davis, with 25 homers, should become the first Astro to hit 30 or more since Jimmy Wynn hit 33 in 1969. And Bass, a lopsided switch-hitter a year ago (.311 righthanded, .241 lefty), has regained his equilibrium by determining wisely that he is a different sort of hitter on each side of the plate. "Righthanded, I'm a pull hitter," he concluded. "Lefthanded, I'm a multifield hitter." He's right. Batting righty, he has hit 4 more homers (11 to 7) despite 76 fewer at bats, but the averages (.307 righty, .309 lefty) could not be in better balance. Bass had taken to calling himself "Rodney," as in Rodney Danger-field and no respect, earlier in the season. Then in June he was named NL Player of the Month, so the Rodney became "Rodney, as in Carew."

The Astros have an abundance of what Bass might call multifielders, and they give the team, in Lanier's opinion, all sorts of options. Lopes has played all three outfield positions and third base, and he can still play some second. Walling, who platoons with Phil Garner at third, has also played first, left and right. Garner plays both second and third. And Craig Reynolds, who mostly platoons at short with Dickie Thon, has also played first, third and rightfield, and on July 17 he pitched a memorable ninth inning in a 13-2 loss to the Mets. After striking out a humiliated Howard Johnson, he gave up three runs.

Berra could have been speaking of the notoriously reluctant Houston fans when he said, long ago, "If the people don't want to come out to the park, nobody's going to stop 'em." In their absence early this year, they had baseball people talking about an Astros move to Washington D.C. But now they are finally beginning to realize that they have something worth watching. In June, attendance was some 80,000 behind the pace of a year ago, when the team drew only 1,182,541. But since the All-Star break, the average has been close to 24,000 per game in the Dome. The players are happy to see them there. "It helps us," says Scott. "When we get big crowds in there, they can be as noisy as those anywhere. I think it took the people a while to really believe we could be where we are. They had a wait-and-see attitude. They probably wanted to see where we would be in September."

Well, that, barring the suddenly unforeseen, would certainly seem to be in first place.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAAtlanta's Rafael Ramirez got in the way of the ball as Thon and Doran covered second. TWO PHOTOSRONALD C. MODRALightning and thunder: Ryan (left) is still one of the Astros' mound mainstays, and Bass has been a boon from both sides of the plate. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERYogi and fellow coach Matt Galante demonstrate the closeness on the Houston ball club. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERLanier, bussing his nephew goodbye, has been great with the kids on the Astros.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)