Syracuse Post-Standard - October 10, 1980

Houston Gaining Momentum in NL?


PHILADELPHIA (UPI) – The National League playoffs, now tied at one game each, could be tilting Houston’s way – and not just because the remaining games take place in the Astrodome, where the Astros went 55-26 this season.


First of all, the Astros can now throw their ace, knuckle-balling right-hander Joe Niekro, 20-12, against the Philadelphia Philies Friday in game three of the best-of-five series.


Opposing him will be injury-plagued right-hander Larry Christenson, who owns a 0-1 record with a 10.13 ERA in two playoff appearances.


Second, the Astros are believing in themselves and establishing their style, a nickel-and-dime offense backed by a strong starting staff and heroic relief corps.


Third, with their magical 10-inning, 7-4 victory in game two Wednesday night, they may have planted renewed doubt in the minds of the Phillies, who know only too well that they have lost all three of their previous playoffs.’


“I don’t think Philadelphia will win two out of three,” Niekro said.  “We’re comfortably in the dome just like the Phillies are comfortable in the Vet.  We’re home and in front of our own fans.


Niekro says he believes he can handle the Phillies despite his 0-2 mark against them this season.


“They were low-scoring games,” Niekro said.  “I’ve had success against the Phillies.  I think getting the leadoff batter is the key, especially for a knuckleball pitcher.


“The big thing is to keep Pete Rose and Bake McBride off base.  That way, when (Mike) Schmidt and (Greg) Luzinski hit it out, you’re only down 2-0 instead of 4-0.  We’re not a team that scores a lot of runs.”


Christenson, 5-1, comes off a year during which he underwent arm surgery and suffered back and groin injuries.  He went 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA against Houston.


“I’ll try my best,” he said.  “I’ve done well and I know the guys will come through with some runs.  We have a good hitting club.  I’m ready to pitch.”


Philadelphia finished with a 42-39 road record and won four of six games in Houston.  Manager Dallas Green believes Christenson can continue the pattern.


“He’s pitched well in the dome before,” Green said.  “I’m confident of his ability to get us going on the right track again.”


To do that, Philadelphia must hit and force mistakes.  Neither job will be easy.  When the Astros finish scratching out a run or two, they make it difficult to come back.  They do not beat themselves.


In fact, their poise led playoff-seasoned Joe Morgan to make an observation that should sting the Phillies, who have never won a post-season series.


“These guys have really battled and battled and come a long way,” said Morgan.  “It’s turned into a real character team.  We weren’t rattled by the playoffs.  If I didn’t know, I wouldn’t know which team doesn’t have playoff experience.”


Still, the Phillies believe their grueling stretch drive has conditioned them to adversity.  They profess to be unworried.


“We have a day off to relax, and then we have to win two of three,” said Schmidt.  “That’s all there is to it.  We plan of playing well when we do there.”