It's too hot to decide a pennant," California Angels pitcher Dan Petry said last week. "There should be a bite in the air for a big series. It should at least feel like October." With seven weeks left in the season and the temperature in Anaheim near 90°, the Angels and the Oakland A's, the teams with the best records in baseball, were about to have their last scheduled meeting of 1989. It was billed as "The Series" by two Los Angeles newspapers.
By the time it ended, Anaheim Stadium had set an alltime major league attendance record (175,058) for a three-game series, and the A's had won two of the three to emerge with a one-game lead in the American League West.
"The timing of this series was unfortunate because it had the prospect of being something to remember if it were played in late September," said Oakland manager Tony La Russa. "The winner of this series wins nothing. All it does is make a statement, then moves on to the final quarter of the season."
While La Russa was offended by the schedule maker's flawed sense of dramatic pacing, Oakland's slugging first baseman, Mark McGwire, seemed far more satisfied with the outcome. "I think we did make a kind of statement," said McGwire. "They saw what this team is all about. We just go out, grind away and find a way to win, no matter how ugly we look doing it."
What the Angels learned is that the '89 Athletics are no longer the Bash Brothers. Going into the series, Oakland was only 11th in the American League in homers and 11th in runs scored, and 1988's Rambos I and II, McGwire and Jose Canseco, had combined for only half as many homers as they had at this time last season. Of course, Canseco missed the first 88 games of the season with an injury to his left wrist, and McGwire missed 14 in April with a herniated disk in his lower back. But their absence served to demonstrate that, as La Russa says, "What we have is a lot of ways to win individual games."
This season the A's are the Gnash Brothers, winning by teeth-grindingly close margins and doing it with pitching. "Last year we'd have some easy wins, big 13-3 routs with a lot of that forearm stuff," says McGwire. "We recently had a series with Chicago that summed up our season—win 3-2, win 2-0, win 2-0. We've lived with that for four months."
For the Angel series, the A's would again be without Canseco, except for one at bat. His wrist was hurting, and he had pulled a muscle in his right thigh on Monday in Seattle. Relief pitcher Dennis Eckersley, though, was fully recovered from his six-week bout with a strained muscle in his right shoulder, and shortstop Walt Weiss was working his way back into the lineup after a lengthy stay on the disabled list with a damaged right knee. "We're not hitting, but that's O.K.," said La Russa. The A's had scored only 33 runs in 11 games, but had gone 7-4 as last weekend's series began, and they had moved into a first-place tie with the Angels.
Pitching coach Dave Duncan manipulated his rotation to enable his big three of Mike Moore, Bob Welch and Dave Stewart to start the games in Anaheim. Moore, a refugee from Seattle whom the A's had signed as a free agent in the off-season, set the tone for the weekend. "There's nothing you can do when he's right," said Angel manager Doug Rader.
Moore opened this midsummer classic by overpowering the Angels with an easy eight-hit, 5-0 win. He walked not a single batter and struck out eight. Now 15-6 with a 2.38 ERA, Moore says, "I'm really the same pitcher I was in Seattle [where he was 65-96 over seven seasons]. It's just a different atmosphere. It's fun."
"The reason I think Moore will prove to be a great money pitcher is that he's very unemotional," says Duncan. "He's cool under fire. The reason he lost some tough games in Seattle was because he needed an off-speed pitch, he didn't have a bullpen, he had to shoulder the burden of facing the other team's best pitchers, and the ballpark is tough to pitch in."
Friday's opener also showed Oakland's Gnash Brothers at their best. Second baseman Tony Phillips made a dazzling backhand stop at the second base bag of a grounder by Jack Howell and turned it into a double play that got Moore out of a first-and-third, one-out jam in the second. In the fourth inning, rightfielder Stan Javier cut down Tony Armas trying to go to third on a Chili Davis single. Then, in the fifth, Javier doubled and scored on Weiss's single to break a scoreless tie against starter Mike Witt. In the sixth, Phillips crushed a two-run homer that made it 3-0.
The round-tripper was Phillips's second most important of the season. On July 31, his two-run clout off Chicago's Bobby Thigpen gave the A's a 3-2 win on the same night that the Angels blew a 5-0 lead and lost 6-5 in Seattle. "That," says La Russa, "was a very big night."
Oakland's renewed emphasis on pitching was reflected in La Russa's decision on Saturday to start the lefthand-hitting Ron Hassey behind the plate. The A's would be facing a lefty, Jim Abbott, but La Russa inserted Hassey at catcher because, said the manager, "Welch does best with Hassey, and the pitcher comes first." Oakland's starters have also been supported by the success of the bullpen, which, despite Eckersley's injury and the June trade that sent relievers Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret to the Yankees for Rickey Henderson, is on a pace to save 62 games; the bullpen set the record of 64 last year.
Plunk and Cadaret have been more than adequately replaced by Todd Burns and Matt Young, but it is Henderson who has made the trade look good. Since arriving in Oakland, he has either hit safely or walked 89 times in 45 games and has scored 45 runs. "We're a very different team with him," says La Russa. "If we can get Canseco, McGwire and the big boys bashing, we'll be awesome."
Saturday's game hardly resembled a clash between two front-running teams. Despite collecting six hits, six walks and two stolen bases and benefiting from an Angel error, a passed ball and a wild pitch in four innings, Oakland had only a 4-2 lead. "We showed how many problems we have scoring runs today," said McGwire. In fact, the four Oakland runs came on a bloop double, a bad-hop single, four consecutive walks and a sacrifice fly. Welch, meanwhile, was having troubles of his own, working himself out of a number of jams. In the third, with two men on base and one out, Welch took advantage of centerfielder Devon White's penchant for swinging at everything, by striking him out on a pitch well out of the strike zone. Welch then walked Wally Joyner intentionally and struck out Armas.
In the eighth, Rickey Henderson kick-started the A's. After Javier walked, Henderson executed a hit-and-run single to center. The next batter, Carney Lansford, grounded to Kent Anderson at short, but Henderson had been running with the pitch and the Angels were forced to settle for the out at first, as Javier scored. Henderson stole third, which forced Rader to bring the infield in and allowed Dave Henderson's grounder up the middle to trickle through for a hit. McGwire then homered, and the A's won 8-3.
"I didn't want to leave New York, but when George [Steinbrenner] started all that stuff in the papers, I said I'd only come home," says Henderson of his agreeing to be traded back to Oakland, where he had played from 1979 through '84. "No one gets blamed here every time we lose, like we did in New York. Everything is very positive here."
Especially La Russa's appreciation of Henderson's skills and enthusiasm. "Rickey plays very hard," says La Russa. "He got an unfair rap for not playing hurt. It's tough to be a manager, have Rickey Henderson and not put his name in the lineup, but sometimes it has to be done."
In the eighth inning on Saturday, La Russa had Duncan call the press box to get the names of Cleveland's starting pitchers for Oakland's series this week against the Indians. He wrote them down, then went to Henderson. "Who don't you hit well?" he asked his left-fielder. Henderson pointed to the name John Farrell. "Monday's an off day, and you'll sit against Farrell Thursday," La Russa told a grateful Henderson.
Like the A's, the Angels have also had to cope with injuries and rely on their frontline pitching. Designated hitter Brian Downing is out of the lineup with sore ribs. Outfielder Claudell Washington, with a sore left shoulder, and catcher Lance Parrish, with bruised ribs, played against the A's but played in pain. And on the eve of the big series, in a game against Seattle, shortstop Dick Schofield was hit by a Scott Bankhead pitch, broke his left hand and is sidelined for at least three weeks.
The Mariners beat the Angels 3-2 in 10 innings that night, which allowed the A's to pull even and exposed how fragile the Angels' success really is. The Angels may be first in the American League in homers, with 113, but they are next to last in doubles and don't have anyone on the club with more than 35 extra-base hits. For games in which they have failed to hit a home run, the Angels are 16-29. "We're in every game because of our starting pitchers," says Petry. "There's no real mystery to our being up there." Bert Blyleven, Chuck Finley and Kirk McCaskill are a combined 37-16, with a 2.54 ERA, and Angel starters have been knocked out before the sixth inning only 19 times all season.
It was fitting that Blyleven would start Sunday's game. On June 16 he ended a seven-game Angel losing streak by beating Detroit 9-4. On July 18 he ended a six-game slide by blanking Toronto 1-0. And on Aug. 2, he shut out the Mariners to stop a three-game streak.
On Sunday he had some help in halting the latest Angel skid. With the score tied 1-1 in the sixth, the A's had runners on first and third with none out when Dave Parker hit a pea to Joyner, who made a fine catch at first base, then doubled Lansford off the bag. In the bottom of the inning, Anderson lunged at an outside pitch and blooped a triple inside the rightfield line to knock in two runs.
Going into the ninth California led 4-3, and Bryan Harvey was pitching in relief of Blyleven. Phillips, leading off the inning, hit a fly to right that Armas nearly lost in the sun before catching on his knees. Javier followed with a fly to the same place, and Armas battled the sun again. This time White tried to cut in to make the catch, only to have the ball bounce off his glove as Javier raced to third. La Russa summoned Canseco and Dave Henderson to pinch-hit. Harvey struck out Canseco with a high forkball that caught the inside corner. Harvey then worked the count on Henderson to 0 and 2. The scene had an ominous familiarity.
"This is the fifth game, '86 all over again," A's third base coach Rene Lachemann told Howell. "If he throws a forkball, Hendu'll hit it out."
"He won't ever throw Hendu a forkball," the Angel third baseman replied.
In the fifth game of the 1986 American League Championship Series, with California ahead of the Boston Red Sox three games to one. Angel relief pitcher Donnie Moore threw a forkball to Henderson with one on and two out in the top of the ninth and the Angels leading 5-4. Henderson parked the pitch in the seats; the Red Sox came back to win the series. Moore, who committed suicide last month, is said to have been shattered by the episode. So when Lachemann saw what Harvey was throwing, he turned away. It was a forkball,
Henderson swung and missed, and the game was over.
"We played up there I two weeks ago] before three sellouts, and they won the final game, the one they had to win," said Rader. "We did the same. What's new? This season has been the story of two teams playing their tails off. It's just too bad it's August and we won't see one another again. My cardiologist is the only one who's happy about that."