The late Roberto Clemente once was asked to explain what made him a great baseball player. He replied: "When they throw the ball, I hit the ball; when they hit the ball, I catch the ball."

Howard University baseball Coach Chuck Hinton has a similarly facile explanation for his team's reversal of last season's losing form: "Our pitchers have thrown a few strikes and our defense is catching the ball."

The Bison have performed those and other basic tasks well enough this fail to lead the Capital Collegiate Conference with a 14-3 record. Last fall the Bison struggled to a 7-13 finish, following a 5-15 mark in the fall of 1976. Last spring Howard won 14 of 38.

Perhaps Hinton should have added team speed to his list of team attributes. Following yesterday's 8-5 victory over second-place George Mason - it virtually wrapped up Howard's first conference championship - the elated players left the George Mason Parking lot so quickly that Hinton had to yell at players in the last car to give him a ride home.

"The team has come of age." said Hinton. "We had mostly freshmen last year and they took their licks. This summer all the players competed in summer leagues and thus came back ready to play. Plus, our freshmen this season have been doing the job. I guess that biggest change from last year is that we're more consistent."

One of the most consistent performers has been sophomore pitcher Charles Williams, who has gone the distance in every outing to compile a 5-0 record, including yesterday's victory over George Mason.

"Charles is just so stubborn," commented Hinton after yesterday's game. "I tried to tell him to throw down the middle after we got six runs in the first inning. But he wanted to work the corners, not giving them anything at all to hit."

The Bison rocked their hosts with five singles and took advantage of two Patriot errors in the first inning to score the six runs. The big bowl was a two-run single by sophomore Don Hackney, the eight man to bat.

The Patriots, now 12-5 and three games behind Howard with three to play, scored three runs in the second. Two walks and four hits, including RBI singles by Mark Sadler, Peter Bergmann and Ted Jackson enabled GM to pull within three.

Three singles, a walk a wild pitch by Williams and an error in the bottom of the fifth led to two more Patriot runs and the gap was closed to 6-5.

But the Bison, who had slugged 48 extra-base hits during the first 16 games, went to the long ball in the seventh inning to pad their lead. Leadoff man Vince Bailey found his name written on a one-and-nothing pitch by Bruce Hecker and blasted a solo homer over the 360-foot mark, his second of the reason and 13th run batted in.