There was another gripping drama in Kansas City in mid-August. A few miles from the din of the Republican Convention, the Royals were quietly striving to keep their lead in the American League West. They had lost starters Steve Busby and Paul Splittorff with injuries, and their nine-game margin over the A's, who were coming on at a .750 clip, seemed anything but secure. At the end of last week, however, the Royals were still nine games ahead, and now time is running out for Oakland. Kansas City owes its solid lead not so much to its celebrated swingers—Royal hitters lead the league with a .273 team average—and starters as to a couple of once-obscure relief pitchers who have been as much in demand in K.C. as were uncommitted G.O.P. delegates.
Mark Littell (7-3, 15 saves, 1.74 ERA) and Steve Mingori (3-4, 10 saves, 2.19 ERA) have had a win or a save in nearly half the Royals' 78 victories and have allowed righthander Marty Pattin to return to the undermanned starting rotation. Last week Littell had three saves and combined with Mingori to pitch seven innings of four-hit relief in a 7-6, 15-inning defeat of Boston that put Kansas City's lead back up to nine games.
The right-handed Littell, 23, was the last pitcher to make the Royals this spring, but has improved his fastball and slider so much that he is averaging nearly a strikeout an inning. The left-handed Mingori, 32, seemed washed up in spring training after six big-league seasons; then he picked up a knuckle-curve to complement his screwball and has had hitters poking weak grounders ever since.
The two are near perfect at foiling the opposition—and are ideal foils for each other. Littell, who comes from Gideon, Mo., approaches the mound to the tune of Country Boy over the Royals Stadium loudspeaker. Kansas City-born Mingori, an engaging cosmopolite, has been called Sonny Bono by his teammates ever since a midseason hair transplant made him a look-alike for the TV star.
September 5, 1976
Even though no other team has a one-two punch to match Littell and Mingori, this has been a vintage year for relievers. Sparky Lyle of the Yankees, Rawly Eastwick of the Reds and Gene Garber and Tug McGraw of the Phillies have contributed mightily to their teams' first-place records. And the winning-percentage leaders in both leagues are relievers—Butch Metzger (10-1) of San Diego and Bill Campbell (13-3) of Minnesota. Campbell could conceivably break Elroy Face's major league record of 18 wins in a season by a relief pitcher.
That kind of work deserves special recognition. Accordingly, baseball has introduced a Rolaids Relief Man award to be presented annually to the leading reliever on each team and in each league. It's a promotional gimmick, to be sure, but no one can dispute its appropriateness for this season. In Kansas City, at least, relief is spelled P-E-N-N-A-N-T.