The American League playoffs matching the world champion Oakland A's and the Baltimore Orioles might seem to be merely another confrontation between two teams that have been there before, the Orioles winning in three straight in 1971. Oakland, however, is a mature team now, and Baltimore the most changed club in the major leagues. The Orioles of today resemble what a National League team is supposed to be. They scoot around the bases and use the hit-and-run to perfection. "With us," says Brooks Robinson, the ageless third baseman, "it used to be Frank Robinson and Boog Powell with 30 or so homers, and me in the 20s. Now it's singles, hit-and-run and stolen bases, plus some fantastic defense."
The Orioles always seem to be blessed with excellent defense as well as superior pitching. If they do not have four 20-game winners as they once did, they do possess three remarkable arms in Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally. Only one other team in the American League can send out three such strong starters: Oakland. Many experts consider the A's top three of Jim (Catfish) Hunter, Vida Blue and Ken Holtzman somewhat better than Baltimore's. Now these pitchers can decide the matter among themselves in what promises to be an outstanding playoff.
The biggest question is whom Oakland Manager Dick Williams will select to face off against Baltimore's Jim Palmer in the opening game. Williams has said it will be Vida Blue rather than Jim Hunter, the A's biggest winner (21-5). The reason for using Blue is that a right-handed lineup that would oppose him is not as fast afoot as the Orioles' left-handed card. Facing a lefty, Manager Earl Weaver normally keeps two of his hard-hitting whippets, Alonza Bumbry (.337) and Rich Coggins (.321), on the bench and replaces them with Merv Rettenmund (.262) and Don Baylor (.286).
"You know," says Palmer, "it wouldn't surprise me if Blue was even better now than when he was having that great year in '71. He is not as tired now. He looked it in the '71 playoff. He had pitched an awful lot of innings." But purists will blanch if Blue starts the first game instead of Hunter, because Hunter might then not be able to go again in a long playoff. "All it means to me," says Weaver, "is that if they start Blue I can put nine right-handed hitters in the game, and two of them, Baylor and Rettenmund, have been my hottest hitters since July. Our lineup is just as strong against lefthanders as righthanders." Perhaps. But it is not as fast.
The Orioles concede that Oakland pitching, port or starboard, is good. Palmer, who had 14 victories in his last 17 starts and during one flamboyant stretch won 10 in a row on his way to a 22-9 record, says, "Their bullpen may be a little deeper than ours, and overall their pitching might have a slight edge. They do have a lot of guys who can hit the ball out, so I think you have to respect their power. You have to make good pitches against them. But if you can keep the ball in the park, their speed isn't that good; you can get a lot of double plays."
Oakland's bullpen is the better, led by Rollie Fingers, but Baltimore's, though little known, is not to be sneered at. It has Bob Reynolds with a 1.95 ERA and Grant Jackson, who has nine saves and an 8-0 record to go with his 1.91 ERA.
"Defensively," says Robinson, who is still Old Hoover at third and the anchor of an exceptionally stingy infield, "this club is better than ever. It's the speed in the outfield. I get a thrill watching this outfield play. The two little guys [Bumbry and Coggins] really kept us above water. They did it when everybody started stumbling. When we won 14 in a row, we wouldn't have been better than 9 and 5 except for our defense."
So remarkable is Baltimore as a base-stealing team that it is the first in baseball history with eight men in double figures. They are Baylor, with 32, Bumbry (22), Paul Blair (18), Coggins and Bobby Grich (17 each), Mark Belanger (13) and Rettenmund and Tommy Davis (11 each). And while the Orioles have stolen 146 bases altogether, their opponents have been able to steal against them only 69 times, being caught 55.
In the 12 games played this year between the teams, Oakland has won seven times. The A's lack the quantities of speed Baltimore can unleash, but they do have one highly explosive individual—leadoff man Bert Campaneris. "I think the key to beating Oakland," says Palmer, "is keeping Campaneris off base. He can manufacture some cheap runs—get on, steal a base, steal another and score on an infield out or something like that." Unfortunately, Oakland's fastest man, Centerfielder Billy North, suffered a severe ankle sprain a fortnight ago. "It's sore," he says, "and I'm discouraged, because it looks like I won't make the playoffs." When injured, North was the league-leading base stealer with 53. Angel Mangual, who hit .300 as a sub in the 1972 Series, will replace him in center. North had won the job earlier this season from Mangual and Bill Conigliaro. In doing so, North also won the lead-off spot over Campaneris, who now returns to it—a development the Orioles may or may not be pleased about.
Another Oakland pain came when Vida Blue was hit on the pitching arm last Friday night and was sent to the hospital as a precaution. The team doctor quoted Blue: "You tell 'em it was nothing." Subsequent examination bore him out. Sigh of relief.
Second sigh of relief: Reggie Jackson, the slugging rightfielder who surely is the American League's most valuable player, had recovered so well from a hamstring pull by last week that he looked as fit as ever—and he was pounding the ball. Jackson, who missed every game of last year's World Series after a good playoff, has this 1973 record: 32 homers, 117 RBIs, .293 average, 99 runs scored and 22 steals. If North is out, says Jackson, "Campy must steal some bases—and Reggie must steal some bases."
Leftfielder Joe Rudi, who lost 15 pounds during the season because of internal ailments, is healthy again and hitting well. Third Baseman Sal Bando and First Baseman Gene Tenace, along with Jackson and Designated Hitter Deron Johnson, give the A's a formidable long-ball potential.
The Baltimore-Oakland playoffs will be the season's last at bats for the designated hitter; he will be scrapped in the World Series. It is interesting that two of the league's top Desis, Tommy Davis of the Orioles (.308, 89 RBIs) and Johnson of the A's (.246, 81 RBIs) could prove to be pivotal men—for better or worse—in the playoff. The winner's Desi probably will serve only as a pinch hitter in the Series. The fact that its pitchers have not hit all season will give the American League a built-in excuse if its team is beaten. The chances are it will need no such crutch.