As the Yankees beat up on the Red Sox for the second weekend in a row and moved in to a semi-comfortable lead in the American League East, who should be surging ahead in the West but New York's staunch playoff antagonists of the past two autumns, the Kansas City Royals.
Only two weeks ago, when Kansas City played second-place California in Anaheim Stadium, the Royals seemed about to pull an el foldo worthy of the Red Sox. After holding the Western Division lead almost without interruption since July 17, K.C. dropped three of the four games, and it appeared that Angel owner Gene Autry's $7.5-million investment in free agents over the past two years finally was about to pay off. California trailed by only half a game as last week began, and like the Yankees the Angels seemed to have the upper hand as they looked ahead to another weekend of head-to-head combat, this time in Kansas City.
When the Angels got to K.C, they found themselves in a battle—which would include a couple of bench-emptying skirmishes over knockdown pitches—all right, but it was for their very lives. California fell into such desperate straits mainly because of what had happened a few days earlier: during a four-game interlude in Texas, the Angels had lost three times. Even the Yankees probably could not have won the opener against the Rangers, because Ferguson Jenkins pitched a three-hit, 1-0 shutout. But California had only its ace pitchers, Starter Frank Tanana and reliever Dave LaRoche, to blame for the ensuing defeats. They each blew leads as the Angels lost 7-5 and 6-4.
It hardly mattered that California scored 13 runs in the ninth inning—a major league record—to win the Texas finale 16-1 and break a nine-game Arlington Stadium losing streak. That night the Royals, who had returned to their beloved, carpeted park where they have won 51 of 73 games, blew away Oakland for the fourth straight time. With complete-game performances from Pitchers Marty Pattin, Larry Gura and Paul Splittorff, and eight hits from Amos Otis, who continued a 16-game tear during which he batted almost .500, K.C. outhit the A's 45-20 and out-scored them 29-5.
Otis stayed hot both with his bat and under the collar Friday evening against the Angels. When Nolan Ryan buzzed Otis' face with a fastball, Amos began a stroll toward the mound that brought both squads onto the diamond, but no punches were thrown. Otis, for one, saved his sock for the seventh inning, when he crashed a game-tying home run. The Royals went on to win 3-2 on Clint Hurdle's ninth-inning pinch triple and an opposite-field single by Pete LaCock, the former bench warmer who has become a Kansas City star by hitting .301 while platooning at first base. The win gave K.C. a 4�-game lead in the standings and a six-game bulge in the loss column.
The Angels broke Kansas City's five-game winning streak 4-3 Saturday when rookie Carney Lansford belted a three-run, eighth-inning homer off Royal reliever Al Hrabosky. That clout set the scene for another round of bench-clearing as the maddened Mad Hungarian twice threw over the head of California's next batter, Lyman Bostock. This time there was fighting—and, moments later, ejections—but the only injury was to the Royals' Jerry Terrell, who claimed that his little finger was bitten, and bloodied, by California's Ron Jackson.
The Royals got their teeth into Tanana early on Sunday when Frank White and George Brett clouted third-inning homers. Those blows set Kansas City off to a 5-0 victory that made an 18-game winner of Dennis Leonard and an almost certain three-time division champ of K.C.
Bring on those Yankees.