THE ASTROS' STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL, ON THE FIELD AND OFF A HOT INDIAN'S SUMMER LEAGUES APART ON THE STRIKE ZONE

September 01, 1996

HOUSTON HAS A PROBLEM

In this year of the home run, the endless parade of relievers
and the all-too-typical 10-8 score, the Astros' series against
the Cardinals last weekend in Houston was all about terrific
pitching, dazzling defense and scraping for runs. "Just like
old-time baseball," said St. Louis catcher Tom Pagnozzi.
"Pitchers going the distance for each team. Great plays. Great
baseball."

The Astros came out with a split of the four-game series but
hung on to a half-game lead in the National League Central, even
after a 3-2 loss to the Cardinals on Monday night. A total of 10
runs were scored in the first three games of the series--an
amazingly low total considering that through Sunday a team had
scored 10 or more runs in a game 396 times this year. "This is
how the game is supposed to be played," said Houston third
baseman Sean Berry. "Every hit is important. No big lulls in the
game. I think fans like it more this way."

Astros fans loved it, and for a change they showed up in large
numbers--an average of 36,807 turned out for the three weekend
games, 12,386 more than the average going into the series.
That's important because Astros owner Drayton McLane, citing
sagging attendance the last three seasons, has threatened to
move the team unless the city builds a new stadium for him. He
has reported losses of $61.3 million since purchasing the club
in November 1992 and has tried for a year to sell to a local
buyer, but no one has emerged. Last winter he had a deal to sell
the Astros to Virginia businessman Bill Collins, who wanted to
move the team to the Washington, D.C., area, but Major League
Baseball told McLane that he had to try harder to make things
work in Houston or try harder to find a local buyer. Now McLane
sees a new stadium as his only hope of bringing out the fans in
Houston.

The Astros players responded to the show of support with
aggressive baseball. First baseman Jeff Bagwell even slid into
first base to beat out an infield grounder. "I spazzed out," he
said. "After I did it I thought, That was terrible."

Actually it was exciting--as was the entire series. In the
opener the Cardinals won their fourth 1-0 game of the season
(that's only two less than the total for the entire American
League), with centerfielder Ray Lankford's titanic homer off
Darryl Kile in the third inning providing the only run Cards
starter Donovan Osborne needed. Then the St. Louis defense,
featuring spectacular catches by Lankford and rightfielder Brian
Jordan, made the run stand up. "If it weren't for Lankford and
Jordan," said Astros pitcher Danny Darwin, "we win that game 5-0."

Game 2 began in similar fashion, when Jordan made a diving catch
to take a hit away from Houston leadoff hitter John Cangelosi.
But Astros shortstop Orlando Miller brought the game to an
electrifying close when he drilled a two-run home run with one
out in the ninth for a 3-1 win that had the cheering crowd of
43,258 on its feet. Houston ace Shane Reynolds outdueled Todd
Stottlemyre as two pitchers went the distance in the same
National League game for only the third time this year.

It was the Astros' first win of the season against St. Louis
after seven straight losses. Fittingly, it was Reynolds who
ended that streak. His five-hitter ran his record to 16-6,
making him second in the league to Atlanta's John Smoltz in
victories and winning percentage. Despite that success, Reynolds
remains the most unheralded pitching success in baseball. "No
one has any idea who I am," Reynolds says with a laugh. "Some
pitchers are flashy or overpowering. People love to write about
people like that. They don't like writing about guys like me.
There's really nothing to me."

Reynolds is a 28-year-old righthander who has a great forkball,
a good fastball that registers in the low 90s on the radar gun
and marvelous control. He has slowly worked his way to the top
of the Houston staff. He was a third-round pick of the Astros in
1989, and his career got a boost when he learned how to throw
the forkball while playing winter ball in Venezuela in '91. He
got shelled in a brief major league trial a year later, but he
found out he was tipping his pitches and corrected that error.
In '94 he joined the Astros' rotation only because of an injury
to Pete Harnisch, but by this spring he had earned an Opening
Day start. His secret: a maniacal work ethic, which includes a
daily routine of 1,000 sit-ups, running and lifting weights.
"The human body," he says, "can do more than you think."

Cardinals leftfielder Ron Gant proved that in Game 3 on Sunday,
when he saved a couple of runs with a running catch on Miller's
liner down the line. "I can't believe Gant caught that ball,"
said Houston manager Terry Collins. But Bagwell homered in the
third and singled home a run in the eighth to give the Astros a
4-1 victory. Of the 10 games these teams have played this year,
all but one has been decided by three runs or less. And they
play another three-game series, in St. Louis, starting on Labor
Day. Don't miss it.

IMPROVED INDIAN

The fact that Indians third baseman Jim Thome has matured into a
terrific hitter comes as no surprise to the rest of his family;
he takes after his father, Chuck, a great fast-pitch softball
player who got a couple of knocks off legendary pitcher Eddie
Feigner, the leader of The King and His Court. And it comes as
no surprise to Thome's teammates, who have seen him improve at
the plate in each of his six major league seasons. "Next year,"
says Cleveland shortstop Omar Vizquel, "he will hit 50 home runs."

At week's end Thome was hitting .318 with 28 homers and 90 RBIs.
In the last 50 years the only American League third basemen to
hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs in a season were
Cleveland's Al Rosen (1953) and Kansas City's George Brett
(1985). It has been quite a turnaround season for a player who
some thought might be headed for a platoon at third after he
went 0 for 11 with five strikeouts against lefthanders in the
postseason last year.

Thome's introduction to the big leagues was an embarrassing one.
The summer he turned 10, Thome traveled with his father from his
hometown of Peoria, Ill., to Chicago's Wrigley Field, where he
sneaked into the dugout shortly before a game in an attempt to
get an autograph from his hero, Dave Kingman. Cubs catcher Barry
Foote spotted Thome and carried him out before he could
accomplish his mission.

Thome went on to play junior college ball at Illinois Central
and was selected by Cleveland in the 13th round of the 1989
draft. Until last season his defense was so bad that he was
considered a liability at third. But through long, hard work he
made himself into a decent gloveman and a disciplined, dangerous
hitter.

One scout says that as the result of a weightlifting regimen,
the 225-pound Thome is stronger than teammate Albert Belle.
"He's like a tractor," says Rangers general manager Doug Melvin.
"It's a different sound when he hits the ball," one scout says.
"It's like nobody else. You can be turned around and you'll hear
it and say, 'That's Thome.'"

It all starts with Thome's swing, which is a vicious rip on
almost every pitch. But he's also very selective. Through Sunday
he had 102 walks, the second-highest total in the American
League, and an on-base percentage of .459, fourth best in the
league. In 1994 he walked 46 times, last year 97 and this year
he's on pace for 127. "His pitch selection is so much better
than it was a few years ago," says Texas first baseman Will
Clark. "He's getting himself in much better counts."

Thome used to get a lot of walks because he was often batting
near the bottom of the lineup, but after second baseman Carlos
Baerga was traded to the Mets four weeks ago, Thome moved into
the number 3 spot. Having some protection in the order has made
him an even better hitter, and he still walks a lot despite
having Belle, a great slugger, hitting behind him. "I'm seeing
more pitches to hit," Thome says. "Who would you rather face,
Jim Thome or Albert Belle? I'd rather face me."

Maybe, but no pitcher wants to face Thome these days, either.

SHORT HOPS

More strikes are being called in the National League than in the
American League, there's no doubt. Consider: Through Sunday the
NL had 1,103 more strikeouts than the AL. The AL had 1,091 more
walks than the NL. Granted, the use of the designated hitter has
something to do with it, but it doesn't explain that wide a
difference. This could cause some problems next year if there is
interleague play, especially for American League hitters who are
used to a more generous interpretation of the strike zone....
The large number of players claimed off the waiver wire since
the July 31 trading deadline, effectively blocking trades for
those players, is a sure sign that the old gentleman's agreement
among general managers to facilitate late-season deals is a
thing of the past. The Rangers alone have claimed eight
players--including Expos pitchers Jeff Fassero and Pedro
Martinez and Mets reliever John Franco.

COLOR PHOTO: PHIL HUBER Houston's Bill Spiers saved a run with a leaping grab in last Saturday's 3-1 win. COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Strongman Thome swings hard but with a discriminating eye. [Jim Thome batting]
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)