Brian Kingman was sitting in a pub near his Phoenix home two
years ago, having drinks with pals while watching the Royals
play the Twins on TV. Then suddenlythwack! Mark Gubicza,
Kansas City's starting pitcher that night, had his left leg
nailed by a line drive. There was a hush in the bar, and the
announcers revealed that Gubicza's leg was broken.
"Yeeeesssss!" screamed Kingman, instinctively. Gubicza, 4-12 at
the time, was out of commission. He would not lose 20 games.
"I guess that was a little heartless of me," says Kingman, whose
8-20 record for the 1980 Oakland A's makes him the last man to
lose 20 games in a season. "But I'm very protective of losing
20. It's my one claim to fame. It makes me special."
Alas, more than ever, Kingman's specialness is under fire. At
week's end six pitchers were on or near pace to lose 20:
Colorado's Darryl Kile (5-10, 4.51 ERA), Arizona's Willie Blair
(2-10, 5.05) and Tampa Bay's Dennis Springer (2-10, 5.47 ERA)
led the way, followed by Oakland's Tom Candiotti (4-9, 5.26),
Toronto's Juan Guzman (3-9, 5.77) and the White Sox' Jaime
Navarro (5-9, 5.72). Six other pitchers with eight losses apiece
also had a shot.
The old saw in baseball is that it takes a good pitcher to lose
20 games. "You've got to be pitching well to get enough starts
to lose those 20 games," says Jerry Koosman, a good pitcher who
went 8-20 with the 1977 Mets. "If someone loses 20, usually he
has poor offensive support or poor fielding behind him.
Sometimes both." Other good pitchers of recent vintage who have
hit the magic number are Hall of Famers Steve Carlton and Phil
Niekro, and Cy Young winners Denny McLain and Randy Jones. In
fact, 204 times in this century pitchers have lost 20 or more
games in a season, and the list has as many quality pitchers as
consistent losers. Among the latter group you'll even find Hugh
(Losing Pitcher) Mulcahythat's his nickname, you can look it
upwho went 10-20 in 1938 and 13-22 in 1940 with the Phillies.
Kile seems most likely to supplant Kingman, who is now 43 and
the manager of a check-cashing company. The best pitcher on
underachieving Colorado (32-44 at week's end), Kile gets very
little run support; through Sunday he had lost his last seven
decisions, during which the Rockies had scored eight runs for
him. His team plays poor defense, and his high salary$24
million over three yearsmeans he won't be removed from the
rotation. "I just pitch my best and see what happens," says
Kile, who joined Colorado as a free agent after seven years in
Houston. "But I don't think it would be a stigma to lose 20."
Springer, also halfway home, might not need to worry. Very
rarely do pitchers with such high ERAs stick in the rotation,
even on an expansion team. "I'm not overly concerned about him,"
says Kingman, who keeps tabs on the loss columns. "No offense to
Springer, but there's no reason for a manager to keep pitching
him, unless there's nobody else worth trying."
Kingman considers Blair the pitcher to watch. Much like Kile,
Blair used a big 1997 season (16-8 with Detroit) to land a hefty
free-agent contract. That means he'll probably keep getting
starts. Plus, a year ago he had all kinds of good fortune, and
this season he's had little. That has Kingman scared. "To lose
20, weird things have to happen, and they can never go your
way," he says. "The year I lost 20, I won on Friday the 13th and
beat Ron Guidry. Then I couldn't beat anyone else. You have to
find ways to lose. I was good at that. I hope no one else is."
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Issue date: June 29, 1998