At the end, the Royals did have a little trouble, but they finally beat Oakland when they had to. The Yankees? Won it going away, and the rumor is already around that CBS wants to buy them back and use them to replace the team on Ball Four. The important thing, though, is that now the fans can wake up; the playoffs begin Saturday in Kansas City, and they're going to be a real eye-opener.
That will be blessed relief from the dull American League season. New York took over first place in the East on April 12, and Kansas City in the West on May 18. For the rest of the summer they held big leads, until the Royals uncharacteristically stopped scoring runs in September. That gave the A's a chance to eat into Kansas City's eight-game lead and briefly make a race of it. Oakland convincingly won the first two of a brawling three-game series from the Royals last week and moved within 2½ games of the top. Then Larry Gura pitched a four-hitter and Amos Otis came off the bench to break a slump by driving in two runs with a double and a homer, and Kansas City took the third game 4-0—and that was that. But while a Yankees vs. Royals playoff was predictable months ago, the winner of this best-of-five series is not so easy to foretell.
In philosophy and execution, New York and Kansas City are remarkably similar teams, molded by their like-minded managers, Billy Martin of the Yanks and Whitey Herzog of K.C. Yankee pitching ranked first in the league; the Royals were second. The Yankees were second in saves and hitting, the Royals third. The Royals were second in stolen bases, the Yankees third. The most obvious difference between the two teams reflects their environments more than their abilities. Renovated Yankee Stadium allowed New York many more home runs—120 to Kansas City's 64—while the spaciousness of Royals Stadium resulted in K.C.'s hitting 49 more doubles and triples than the Yanks. "They're a lot like us," says Yankee Outfielder Lou Piniella, a former Royal. "Both teams rely on pitching and defense. We don't really have that much more power."
For the second year in a row Kansas City won seven of the 12 regular-season games between the two, but neither side considers that a reliable barometer. Only one game was a rout. Six were decided by one run, and three went into extra innings. "We're beginning the playoffs all even, nothing up," says Herzog. "But the way our hitting has gone down lately, we may be a different club than when we last played the Yankees in August." Indeed, the Royals hit .275 before Sept. 1 and .244 thereafter.
October 10, 1976
A quick recovery would seem advisable, because New York definitely has the pitching to stifle even the liveliest bats. Surprisingly, the worst records and highest earned run averages among the Yankee starters belong to the staff's most celebrated members—former Oakland heroes Catfish Hunter (17-15) and Ken Holtzman (14-11). Of the two, only Hunter should make the three-man playoff rotation, even though his record against K.C. the last two years is 1-5. Joining him will be two other righthanders—Ed Figueroa (19-10) and Dock Ellis (17-8). The bullpen's short stoppers include Grant Jackson, who is unbeaten since joining the Yanks in June, unheralded Dick Tidrow and unflappable Sparky Lyle, who led the league with 23 saves. "The pitching is all in their favor," says Baltimore Scout Jim Russo. "I think that's going to be the difference."
As their records and their unfamiliar names indicate, Kansas City's pitchers are a bit less formidable. And they lack the postseason experience of Hunter and of Ellis, who pitched in playoffs and in a World Series as a Pirate. More important, some of the Royals' best arms may go unused. Al Fitzmorris (15-11) has not won a game since Aug. 28 and may get no more starts against New York than he did in the two crucial September series against Oakland, when he didn't pitch an inning. Paul Splittorff is 9-5 lifetime against the Yankees, but he had not started in two months because of a stretched tendon in the middle finger on his pitching hand. He returned to the Royals' rotation for the season finale and was bombed for four runs in the four innings that he worked. Steve Mingori, Mark Littell and Marty Pattin give K.C. excellent relief. For starters, the Royals probably will stick with Dennis Leonard, at 17-10 the staff's big winner; Andy Hassler (5-12), who has come back strong after losing 18 straight games over two seasons; and Doug Bird (12-10).
The Yankees could ravish a rotation whose only lefthander is Hassler. Opposing managers have gone with lefties as much as possible against New York this year—a sound, if not always a successful, strategy. The Yankees' leadoff batter and top hitter, Centerfielder Mickey Rivers (.312, 95 runs and 43 stolen bases), is left-handed. So are three of the four most productive power hitters: Third Baseman Graig Nettles (32 home runs and 93 RBIs), First Baseman Chris Chambliss (17 and 96) and Oscar Gamble (17 and 57). Switch-hitting Leftfielder Roy White, who does such an admirable job of advancing Rivers into scoring position, hit .320 from the left side and only .248 from the right. The best right-handed batter is Catcher Thurman Munson (.302 with 17 homers and 105 RBIs). As a result, the Yankees have been more successful against righties than lefties, but their winning percentage against lefthanders still would have been good enough to take the Eastern Division title.
The team with the real righty-lefty problem is Kansas City. The Royals were 68-50 against the former and 22-22 against the latter. Third Baseman George Brett (.333), DH Hal McRae (.332) and Leftfielder Tom Poquette (.302) were effective against all pitchers, but left-handed First Baseman John Mayberry hit a dismal .232 against the league and a pathetic .069 against New York. Mayberry did lead K.C. in RBIs, with 95, but because he batted behind Brett and/or McRae, the league's two top hitters, he had opportunities to drive home many, many more runs than he did.
The Royals' best all-round player is Centerfielder Otis, who batted .279, drove in 86 runs, was the team home run leader with 18 and stole 26 bases. In past years, Otis had a reputation for folding under pressure; indeed, he and Mayberry were the main culprits in Kansas City's September scoring drought. But Otis also had three of the Royals' biggest hits of the season. Four weeks ago, after the A's had started to close in, his ninth-inning homer with two men on capped a five-run rally that beat the Twins and gave K.C. its most dramatic—and perhaps most important—victory of the season. His double and homer last week against Oakland all but clinched the Western title.
Against the Yankees, Otis must add to his collection of clutch hits, although they need not be homers. He and Short-Stop Freddie Patek (51 steals) are the bellwethers of the Royals' running game, but he must get on before he can use his speed. And since he bats ahead of those masters of the single and double, Brett and McRae, Otis stands a good chance of scoring whenever he reaches base. Hits by Otis could be the key to big innings for Kansas City.
Most experts give the Royals the defensive edge, even though the Yanks committed fewer errors and completed almost as many double plays as Kansas City did during the season. As a comparison between Patek and New York Shortstop Fred Stanley indicates, defensive statistics are often misleading. Stanley committed far fewer errors than his K.C. counterpart, but Patek is clearly the superior man at short, with much greater range. He and his teammates will have another advantage in the first two games, which will be played in Kansas City on the only synthetic field in the league. The Royals have played 81 games on a rug this season. The Yanks have played six.
Kansas City's fielding superiority is even more decisive in the outfield. The Yankees will be much safer running on Catchers Bob Stinson and Buck Martinez than on the strong arms of Otis and Rightfielder Al Cowens. The Royals, meanwhile, will prefer challenging the looping pegs of White and Rivers rather than the hard throws of Munson.
In fact, catcher is the only position at which New York has a decided edge, but it is likely to be a most important one in a series between two fast clubs. While Munson may check the Royals' runners, Kansas City's catchers are not apt to stop the Yankees, especially Rivers. At least Munson's equal as a candidate for the league's MVP award, Rivers has provided the spark for New York's offense. The Yanks lost 12 of the 26 games he did not start this season. With him, they won 85 of 133.
Although neither team has played in a championship series before, another advantage for New York is experience. The Yankees are a patchwork club, put together largely through deals with other teams. They are two years per man older than the Royals, and nine of them and their manager have been on playoff or World Series teams in other cities. None of the young Royals or their manager have any experience in postseason play.
Thus, the rebuilt, repainted, repolished Yankees must be favored over the shiny new Royals. "Being better on paper doesn't mean you're better on the field," McRae argues. True enough, but New York, in different places at different times, has been there, and it always helps to know the way.