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Basic and Aggressive, That's Lanier's Astros : With Their Fast Start, Houston Players Took to Believing in Their New Manager

October 07, 1986|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

"But all of a sudden in the first three weeks we were 15-6, for whatever reason. I wondered why we didn't play that way in the spring; it was a little confusing. But the believers resurfaced, and it pretty much carried over through the season."

The Astros went from aggrieved to aggressors. A team that stole just 96 bases in 1985 finished with 163 steals this season, with four players--Billy Doran (42), Billy Hatcher (38), Davey Lopes (25) and Kevin Bass (22) stealing at least 20.

Doran probably would have had 50 if he hadn't pulled a groin muscle in the last three weeks. Hatcher came in a trade from the Chicago Cubs before the season; Lopes came from the Cubs in July.

Bass and Davis, as expected, provided power. Bass, surprisingly, also hit .311.

A pitching rotation that had just three reliable starters--Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan and Bob Knepper--picked up a fourth in rookie Jim Deshaies. And in what was perhaps Lanier's most astute move, rookie Charlie Kerfeld was shifted to the bullpen, where he became arguably the best setup man in the league with an 11-2 record and 7 saves.

Kerfeld, the Astros' resident character, wasn't sold on the move at first. For that matter, he wasn't sold on Lanier, either.

"I wasn't exactly thrilled about it," Kerfeld said. "I didn't realize the importance of a setup man. You don't see too many guys in the minor leagues who want to be a setup man.

"In spring training, I was kind of negative toward him (Lanier).I didn't know him, but I had heard about the comments he'd made during the winter, about losing weight or not making the team."

But Kerfeld dropped 40 pounds and he also dropped his reservations about Lanier.

"We have a different personality this year," Kerfeld said. "When I was called up last year, I thought this team was flat and dead. Kind of boring, I thought."

Same old boring Astros? Hardly. Houston won 24 games in its last at-bat.

"Lucky? Not when you do it that many times," said third baseman Denny Walling, who said the five comeback wins against the New York Mets and Montreal Expos right after the All-Star break were the turning point of the season.

The Astros finished with a club-record 96 wins, 10 games ahead of second-place Cincinnati.

"We've been underdogs the whole year," said Lanier, who believes the presence of coaches such as Yogi Berra and Gene Tenace helped to inject a winning atmosphere.

"Nobody picked us to be here, No. 1. A lot of people don't realize we've been in first place this season longer than any other team in baseball. I told that to a New York writer in Cincinnati and he said, 'No way,' but you can look it up."

One thing Lanier did not inherit from Herzog was a flamboyant public personality, though he managed to convey to his players that basic mistakes would no longer be tolerated.

"I hate to understate or overstate what he's done for us," Ashby said. "I didn't have reservations about him. I had reservations about us.

"What turned around the Astros? Change of leadership was one thing, but there's also a slightly different blend. Billy Hatcher was added to our team, the emergence of Kevin Bass and Glenn Davis, Mike Scott . . . there's a laundry list of reasons."

Same old boring Astros? When Orel Hershiser hit Davis in the back with a pitch, the second time in a month Hershiser had hit the Astro slugger, there was Lanier on the top step of the Houston dugout, ready to lead a charge to the mound. And afterward, it was Lanier who was fuming that Davis hadn't gone out and challenged Hershiser.

It was Lanier who put Ryan on the disabled list, against his star's wishes, and Lanier who sat down Bass for missing an assignment in the outfield.

"I'm not laid back," Lanier said. "I'm not quiet. I'm aggressive. I'm upset when we don't do things right and I let the players know it."

Just call it Maxie's way. And, say hey, it works.

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