Foremost on a staff that compiled an overall earned run average of 2.96 is Jim (Catfish) Hunter, who won 25 games (against 12 losses) so expeditiously that scarcely anyone noticed. Hunter is not a strikeout man—he fanned only 139 batters in 315? innings—but he is also not a bases-on-balls man, yielding only 46 walks. What Hunter does is pitch the ball over the plate and let somebody hit it, usually on the ground or straight up in the air. He has been described as "a pitcher's pitcher," a craftsman who throws the ball only where he intends it to go. He has won 106 games in the last five years.
"There's nothing mysterious about him," says Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver, a grudging admirer. "He's got his pitches and he just throws them over the plate and keeps challenging the hitters."
Because he walks hardly anyone, never wastes a pitch and rarely falls behind a hitter, the games Hunter pitches seldom last much longer than two hours. He works with efficiency and dispatch, if little flair, and he wins and wins. The other A's starters are Ken Holtzman (19-16) and Vida Blue (17-15). They have estimable bullpen support from the right-handed Rollie Fingers and the left-handed Paul Lindblad.
The Yankees could not hope to challenge such talent without assistance from the Almighty. But playing under Bill Virdon, the manager who was an embarrassingly well-publicized second choice to former A's boss Dick Williams, and in an alien ball park, Shea Stadium, they must have been liked by Somebody Up There to have come as far as they did.
The Yankee situation was further muddied by an equally embarrassing and well-publicized position shift that sent Bobby Murcer, the heir to DiMaggio and Mantle, from center field to right. Murcer, grumbling all the way to his new post, nevertheless set about leading the league's outfielders in assists with 20, and his center-field successor, Elliott Maddox, was among the league's top 10 hitters. Murcer has hit .274 and driven in 87 runs despite a virtually powerless season at the plate. After averaging more than 25 homers in his previous five seasons as a regular, Murcer hit only 10 this year. And scarcely anyone else filled the power vacancy, although Lou Piniella reemerged as a .300 hitter after a .250 year at Kansas City.
The Yankees did benefit from good pitching by medical student George (Doc) Medich (19-14), former Oriole Pat Dobson (18-15) and, occasionally, from Rudy May (7-5), Larry Gura (5-1) and the renowned reliever, Sparky Lyle (9-3). But their catcher, Thurman Munson, had 22 errors, a statistic to gladden the likes of North, Campaneris and the Washingtons.
Despite Sal Bando's concern, Baltimore was much more feared by the A's, primarily because, as North has observed, "They're more like us." The Orioles can run and field and even hit a little bit. And they can pitch, particularly since Jim Palmer recuperated from an elbow injury that kept him on the disabled list for 54 days and Dave McNally recovered from whatever was ailing him.
Palmer and McNally, both of whom enjoyed four successive 20-game seasons in the past, seemed useless at the start of the year. McNally was only 8-8 by July 25, but he has won eight of 10 since then, with eight complete games and three shutouts. Palmer went 4-4 after emerging from oblivion and was impressive in the late-season rush. Junk-pitch practitioner Mike Cuellar (22-10) had his fourth 20-game season, and fireballing Ross Grimsley, obtained in a trade with Cincinnati, won 18 and lost 13, Grimsley, like Cuellar a lefthander, also had a perfect record (3-0) against Oakland this year.
Weaver still favors platooning his catchers, outfielders and first basemen, but he leaves well enough alone at second, third and shortstop, where Bobby Grich, Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger had capital seasons. The Orioles extended the A's to five games in the playoffs last year and beat them three years ago. All things considered, the A's preferred the Yankees.
"If we have any weakness,"says Dodger Manager Walter Alston, "it's on defense. Our strength is that we are well-balanced."