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Baseball / Ross Newhan : Astros, Rangers Are in First Place, but Houston Fans Are Staying Home

June 15, 1986|Ross Newhan

Will 1986 produce a Prairie Series, a Lone Star showdown between the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros?

The possibility seems to have fans in the Dallas-Fort Worth area a lot more excited than their Houston counterparts, who might have been caught up in the Rockets' bid for an NBA title.

The Astros opened a weekend series with the San Francisco Giants having drawn 364,360 for 26 dates, an average of only 14,014 and a decrease of 81,182 from last season, when they drew only 1.1 million.

Why are the National League West leaders drawing so poorly?

Astro officials cite competition from the Rockets, high unemployment stemming from a depressed oil market and a wait-and-see attitude by fans who have been disappointed by the club in the past. There have also been continuing rumors of a possible move to Washington, D.C., turning off another segment of fans.

Pitcher Bob Knepper said that the empty seats have had an impact on the team's play. The Astros are 19-12 on the road, 15-13 at home.

"That may be because there's a little more excitement on the road," he said. "I mean, there's people in the park to watch us. Most of the time at home, we have to play in that big empty house."

The Rangers, meanwhile, have drawn 601,166 for 29 dates, an average of 20,730 and an increase of 186,250 over last year, when they drew 1,112,497 for the season. The 1986 average projects to a club-record 1,679,130.

Even so, Manager Bobby Valentine is playing it low key. His Rangers had a four-game lead in the American League West opening a weekend series in Oakland. The lead was their biggest ever, but Valentine said: "It's a long season. I haven't changed my goal, and that's to be the most-improved team in baseball."

The Rangers, who will open a three-game series in Anaheim Monday, are playing with seven rookies, among them starting pitchers Jose Guzman, Ed Correa and Bobby Witt; left-handed reliever Mitch Williams; cleanup hitter Pete Incaviglia, and regular right fielder Ruben Sierra.

They have performed with poise, registering 20 comeback victories and winning five of six recent games in the seventh inning or later. And it hasn't all gone their way. They have had to overcome injuries and their own aggressiveness. In a 16-inning, 6-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins Wednesday night, for instance, the Rangers had seven runners thrown out on the basepaths.

Said Valentine: "The key is that we continue to do things to put pressure on the other team. I told the guys in spring training to leave the precision baseball to experts. I want our guys to play with enthusiasm and desire."

A veteran Dodger infielder, asking anonymity, says that Dr. K needs a new prescription--if not a new catcher.

His theory is that with Gary Carter apparently calling for curveballs 50% of the time, Dwight Gooden will soon lose his fastball. "He'll soon be throwing in the low 90s (m.p.h.), then under 90," the infielder said, adding that Carter contributed to the sore arms experienced by Steve Rogers, Charlie Lea and Bill Gullickson in Montreal.

It's an interesting concept, but where is New York Mets Manager Davey Johnson when Carter is calling for all the curves? And doesn't Gooden, since he holds the ball, have the final word?

The Kansas City Royals, with an opportunity to strengthen an anemic attack by acquiring outfielder Chili Davis from the Giants last winter, refused to part with starting pitcher Mark Gubicza, reliever Mark Huismann and right fielder Darryl Motley. A bad decision then, it has since become worse.

Gubicza, 3-4 with a 4.88 earned-run average, is on the disabled list, having recently been hit above the right eye by a ball thrown by teammate Danny Jackson; Huismann was traded to Seattle May 21 for a Double-A catcher who was on the disabled list, and Motley was optioned to Omaha Tuesday with a .196 batting average. As of Friday, Davis was hitting .286 with a league-high 44 runs batted in for the Giants.

The Oakland A's have not played at .500 or better on the road since 1975. They were 34-49 last season, 33-48 the year before, 32-49 the year before that.

Now, devastated by injuries, the A's may be headed for their worst road record.

They are 14-23, having lost 10 in a row, including all seven on a recent trip to Chicago and then Cleveland, where they were swept in a three-game series while blowing leads of 4-0, 6-0 and 3-0.

How bad has the injury wave been?

Consider the pitching: Of the opening-day starting staff, only Chris Codiroli remains in the rotation. Of the opening-day relievers, only Steve Ontiveros remains. The A's have five players on the disabled list, among them pitchers Joaquin Andujar and Jay Howell and outfielder Dwayne Murphy. Moose Haas would also be on it because of bursitis, but the A's have already recalled seven pitchers from Tacoma and used nine different starters in the last 15 games through Thursday.

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