The Royals score just enough runs, thanks to a newly discovered proclivity for the long ball. Six players have struck at least 16 home runs, compared to only one with that many last year. Although George Brett leads the Royals in hitting, Al Cowens is the most productive batter, as well as an excellent rightfielder. In his three previous seasons at K.C., the bespectacled Cowens had been edging toward stardom. This year he has made a quantum leap into the cleanup spot, hitting .310 with 23 homers and 107 RBIs. If any little-known player is going to burst into natural prominence by leading his team to the World Series, Cowens would seem to be the man.
New York would probably be the toughest opponent for Kansas City, because the Yankees have the best balance of starters and relievers, offense and defense. The simple truth is that the Yankees can be deadly, whether they are killing their opponent or themselves. New York certainly has the ability to beat Kansas City, but it seems to lack the cohesiveness that a tough playoff fight would require.
The schizophrenic nature of the team is best exemplified by Reggie Jackson. No, he did not find love and happiness in New York, but he is leading the team in RBIs, game-winning hits and petty controversy. Against Kansas City, Jackson has been surprisingly meek, batting .129 and, as is his custom, floundering occasionally in the field. But as his strong showing during the Yankees' late-season surge demonstrated, when Jackson hits the Yankees usually win.
New York seems to have overcome the inconsistent pitching that troubled it early in the season. Ron Guidry and Don Gullett are formidable lefthanders, 29-10 overall and 4-1 against the Royals. They can win if their teammates in the field let them. The right-handed side of the rotation is less satisfactory. Mike Torrez and Ed Figueroa were ineffective in three appearances against Kansas City, and questions concerning Catfish Hunter should be directed to the team doctor, who reports that his prize patient's latest disability is a hernia.
When the need arises, as surely it will, there is always Sparky Lyle, the premier reliever who pitches best in the worst of all possible situations, even when they are of his own making.
New York's biggest problem could be the erratic arm of Catcher Thurman Munson (see Freddie Patek run) and the various deficiencies of the New York outfielders, which could be magnified by the hot bounces balls take on the Kansas City rug. Jackson can run, but he can't always catch. Lou Piniella can catch, but he can't run. Mickey Rivers and Roy White can run and catch, but they can't throw (see all the Royals run). Paul Blair can do it all, but he probably won't play very much.
Of the other eastern contenders, Baltimore would seem to have a better chance than Boston of beating Kansas City. "We're the Rocky of baseball," says Ken Singleton, who provides the offensive punch along with Lee May, Eddie Murray and the speedy Al Bumbry, who sets what tempo there is in the Oriole attack. The Orioles have survived mainly on pitching, defense and divine intervention. One of their four victories against the Royals was clinched by a bases-loaded triple play in the ninth inning of a one-run game.
Among the pitchers, Jim Palmer has the fancy reputation—and probably another 20-win season—but it is young Dennis Martinez who twice was a Kansas City killer.
The Red Sox can mount a fearsome offense (fearsome, at least, in Fenway Park), but their pitching is as weak as the tired right arm of Reliever Bill Campbell. His 12 victories and 29 saves have kept Boston in the race, but overwork (66 appearances) has finally curtailed his availability and effectiveness. There are also problems with the defense, which is not well suited for AstroTurf. This is particularly true in the outfield, where Fred Lynn has been slowed by injuries and Carl Yastrzemski by age. Yaz has not made an error all season, but Royals Stadium seems too large a playground for an old man to run around in. As a rightfielder. Jim Rice makes a great DH.
The World Series opens in the American League city on Oct. 11, and if the six long months of the regular season are an accurate measure, the Phillies should be visiting Kansas City that night. But, as the playoffs have so often proved, the truer test of champions comes in five short days in October. And who knows? Maybe this time there will be enough surprises to turn the playoffs into a fall Semi-Classic.