After eight years we are finally beginning to understand what the American and National League playoffs are all about. They were conceived as a bridge between the grind of the regular season and the grandeur of the World Series, sort of an October Semi-Classic. Baseball's publicity men even insist on calling them the Championship Series, a sonorous label that suggests a competition of excellence. Alas, that has seldom been the case. There have been too few climactic fifth games, and once the first pitch of the World Series is thrown, even if it is a curveball in the dirt, no one remembers the playoffs anyway.
But if the Championship Series have failed to live up to their name, they nevertheless have served an important purpose, revealing weaknesses that were previously obscured. There is a false air of invincibility about playoff teams. Each is a champion in its own right, the class of its division and the toast of its town. When you talk to players about to participate in the playoffs, you almost invariably find them ready to skip consideration of the business at hand and to move directly to discussion of the World Series. What, after all, are five more intraleague games when you already have performed so well in 162?
Ay, there's the rub. In an era when the regular season is generously sprinkled with romps over expansion teams and diluted talent, the playoffs are just about the only honest test to determine which of a league's teams is its best and which is only a shallow pretender. And the playoffs have been a marvel of efficiency at doing this. Since they began in 1969, 11 of the 16 have been settled in four games or less. Half have been three-game sweeps. The "anything" that can happen in these short series has usually turned out to be the right thing.
All of this is likely to become apparent again when the playoffs begin next week. Philadelphia and Los Angeles will open the National League series at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday, and Kansas City and New York will renew last year's American League playoff rivalry at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. This assumes that the Yankees are able to maintain their Eastern Division advantage over Baltimore and Boston. They entered the final week of the season three games ahead of the Red Sox and 3½ in front of the Orioles, and they had the easiest remaining schedule.
The 11th hour activity in the American League East may be much ado about nothing, because Kansas City is superior to all three of its possible opponents. Philadelphia, the other playoff loser last season, should also take advantage of its second chance and defeat the Dodgers. The Royals and Phillies offer none of the glamour and tradition of their opponents, but they do have the better baseball teams. So much for the Celebrity Sweepstakes.
Los Angeles and Philadelphia have been anticipating their meeting for some time now. Although the Dodgers did not clinch the Western Division title until last week, they have led, it seems, since Tom Lasorda became manager on Sept. 29, 1976. The race was all but over on May 6 when Los Angeles had a 22-4 record and a 10½ game lead over the late, great Reds. Cincinnati played Los Angeles virtually even thereafter, but the defending world champions never came close to catching up. Los Angeles' ability to stay well ahead may be its most significant accomplishment. The Dodgers had five months to fall on their faces, five months to listen to Cincy Manager Sparky Anderson's constant predictions that they would, but they never did.
The Phillies started slowly in the East and did not take over first place until Aug. 5, when they began an auspicious three-game sweep of the Dodgers in Philadelphia. The divisional winners split their 12 games this year, each going 4-2 in its home park. This pattern suggests that one of Philadelphia's big advantages could be the playoff schedule, which puts the final three games at Veterans Stadium where the Phils have won 75% of the time. The Phillies are also favored by precedent, the team with the scheduling edge having won seven of the National League playoffs.
But even without the schedule on its side. Philadelphia would seem the worthier club. Both teams hit with power, but the Phillies have better overall batting strength. Los Angeles has more capable starting pitchers, but the Philly bullpen is far superior. The Dodgers have the top base stealing threat in Dave Lopes, but he is offset by the fast Philadelphia threesome of Larry Bowa, Bake McBride and Garry Maddox. The L.A. defense is good, but the Philly defense is better, particularly at third base, shortstop and center field. Los Angeles offers a matched pair of antique—but not antiquated—pinch hitters in Manny Mota and Vic Davalillo. Philadelphia counters with greater depth. "The bench is their big advantage," says Anderson. "It's the best I've seen in the big leagues."
Those three August games in Philadelphia might have been a preview of the playoffs. The Phillies won the first 8-3 by scoring seven runs in the eighth inning. In the next game. Dodger castoff Ted Sizemore's 10th-inning single drove in the only run of the night. The wins both times went to Reliever Gene Garber. Finally, Steve Carlton outdueled Don Sutton for a 3-1 victory.
Los Angeles is counting on its pitching and power because it leads the league in both ERA and home runs. Certainly Philadelphia cannot match the rotation of Tommy John, Sutton and probably Burt Hooton, but for all the Dodgers' explosiveness, they have had a way of wasting good pitching performances. Sometimes the fault lay in a failure to hit in the clutch; more often it was the result of shoddy relief work. Those flaws were the primary reasons that Los Angeles was unable to maintain its early pace.
The opening game matchup of Cy Young candidates John (20-6 at the end of last week) and Carlton (23-9) should be the best of either playoff. But the pivotal pitcher in the series could be the Phillies' 23-year-old righthander, Larry Christenson, who is 0-2 against the Dodgers this season and 2-4 lifetime. He will probably face Sutton, who is a better pitcher than his 14-8 record indicates. Christenson was not even used during Philadelphia's playoff loss to Cincinnati last fall, but he has emerged recently as the most dependable man on the staff, winning 12 of his last 13 decisions. The tipoff on whether Christenson is going to pitch as he has lately—and not as he has against the Dodgers in the past—should come early in Game No. 2. When his sinking deliveries are sharp, he takes advantage of Philadelphia's superb infield defense by inducing batters to hit grounders. If the Dodgers start off by pounding liners and flies to the outfield, they are likely to knock some balls out of the park and Christenson out of the game.
Backing the Philadelphia starters is the deepest bullpen in baseball. "That's where I have an advantage," says Manager Danny Ozark. "I won't hesitate to take a starter out and use one of my relievers." When the work is divvied up, Warren Brusstar gets the long stints and Garber, Tug McGraw and Ron Reed the short. "We can flat-out pitch," says Reed of the bullpenners, who have 28 wins and 42 saves. And because Ozark has had so many reliable men to work with, all of Philadelphia's relievers should come into the playoffs in fine fettle. None of them has had to work more than 120 innings.
Compared to the Phillies' firemen four, the Los Angeles bullpen looks like a bunch of arsonists. Charlie Hough, the early-season relief ace, has been caught with the matches in his hands so often of late that he might not appear at all. In fact, Lasorda may be forced to shift Doug Rau and Rick Rhoden, both starters of the first rank, to the bullpen. By the time they finish warming up, the damage may already have been done.
All pitching plans could go out the window (or, more precisely, over the fence) if the big bats crank up. The Dodgers have a certified Murderers Row in Reggie Smith, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Dusty Baker, who have combined for 120 homers, while the Phillies' power is concentrated in Greg Luzinski and Mike Schmidt, who have 73. They could feast on the gopher balls Carlton and Sutton frequently serve up.
At the top of the batting orders there is a different, but no less volatile, matchup between McBride and Lopes. McBride, the ex-Cardinal who has been a sensation since joining Philadelphia in mid-June, is so destructive at the plate and on the bases that Lou Brock describes him as "a man walking around with a jar of nitroglycerin."
Lopes could be the detonator for the Dodgers. Anderson considers him "the key player of the series. If he plays well, he could turn it around." This was not the case in regular-season games between Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Although Lopes reached base 20 times, he scored only three runs and stole but two bases. He was picked off twice by Carlton, and when Bob Boone, the Phillies' regular catcher, was behind the plate, Lopes did not steal at all. In effect, the Phillies forced him to stay at first and wait for the Dodger power to ignite.
Philadelphia's final edge seems to be psychological. The Phillies are pleased as punch at the way they charged to the front in August, and they figure they learned a valuable lesson in last fall's playoffs when they thrice allowed the Reds to come from behind and win. "Rather than concentrate on the game last year, I was awed by just being there," says Bowa. "This time I won't feel that way. I want to do something. I want to win, to be in the World Series." Bowa and his teammates should make it, thereby becoming the first Phillies to win the National League pennant in 27 years.
Kansas City, Philadelphia's likely opponent, has never won a pennant, but then the franchise is only nine years old. At the end of last week the Royals had the best record in baseball, and their 16-game winning streak from Aug. 31 to Sept. 15 was the longest in the American League since 1953. Like Philadelphia, Kansas City brings a momentum into the playoffs it lacked a year ago. Even then the Royals were noble in defeat, losing in the last inning of the last game. "We know now we can play under pressure," says Pitcher Paul Splittorff. "Before, we just hoped we could."
It is difficult to define Kansas City's superiority. New York hits for higher average, Boston swings with more power and Baltimore plays better defense. The Royals have the best overall pitching in the league, but they do not have a single overpowering starter. What Kansas City does have is a little bit of everything—and it has two big advantages as a result of the schedule. The Royals are one of only three teams in the American League whose home park is covered with artificial turf. Because three of the playoff games will be in Kansas City if the series goes the full route, the AstroTurf could provide a pivotal edge. New York. Baltimore and Boston were 4-12 at Royals Stadium and 10-5 against Kansas City on terra firma.
K.C. has another advantage in the pitching variations Manager Whitey Herzog can employ. Because there is no off-day in the American League playoff schedule, a team must use four starters instead of the three the National League schedule will allow. The key pitcher is Splittorff, a lefthander who was so effective in relief against New York last October and again this season as a starter. Splittorff does not usually finish what he begins, but the Royal bullpen is admirable, featuring the superb Donald Duck impersonations of Marty Pattin, that rara avis Doug Bird and that gangling goose of a country boy, Mark Littell.
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.