CLEVELAND — The Angels sensed the hint of fresh air Sunday.
They found it on the gray shores of Lake Erie in the wake of a gasping loss Saturday.
It took the form of a one-game Western Division lead over Kansas City entering tonight's opener of a four-game showdown in Royals' Stadium.
A 9-3 victory over Cleveland Sunday coupled with Kansas City's 6-3 loss in Minnesota gave the Angels their thin lead, of which Bobby Grich said:
"This gives us a little breathing room. We won't feel quite as tight. It'll help us relax. Our wallets won't be squeaking."
Grich doubled, singled twice and walked as he led a 13-hit attack that saddled the Indians with their 100th defeat.
Cleveland rallied from a 5-0, eighth-inning deficit to defeat the Angels, 7-5, Saturday, but Kirk McCaskill helped erase the memory Sunday. The poised rookie struck out a career-high 10, allowed only seven hits and retired 12 of the last 13 batters as he continued to rebound from a four-game losing streak with his third straight win and 12th against 11 defeats.
McCaskill will next start Friday night in Texas. His performance Sunday seemed to solidify the probability that he will replace an ineligible Don Sutton in the Angel rotation if they advance to the playoffs.
Manager Gene Mauch said he wasn't thinking beyond tonight's confrontation between the Angels' John Candelaria and Kansas City's Bret Saberhagen. The Angels can now clinch a tie for the division title by winning three of four in Kansas City or by splitting with the Royals and then winning two of three in Texas. A four-game sweep by the Angels in Kansas City would put them in the playoffs.
"We're not going in there to split," Mauch said Sunday. "And they have no designs on a split either. It should be a hell of a series. This is what everybody has talked about for four or five months. Now it's time to do something about it.
"We're in just as good a shape as we can be."
The Royals are struggling. They were swept in a three-game series at Minnesota after being swept recently by Texas and Seattle. They have lost 9 of their last 13 games, scoring a total of 38 runs. George Brett is batting .223 in September, his average having fallen from .356 to .330. Willie Wilson is hitting .156 since returning to the lineup after a prolonged absence because of a reaction to penicillin.
Designated hitter Hal McRae has appeared in only 2 of the last 10 games because of a muscle pull in the area of his rib cage, but is expected to start tonight.
"We're in a position where we have to win three of the four games," McRae told the Royals' press corps in Minnesota Sunday. "If we split, the Angels are still in charge."
McRae added that he still liked the Royals' chances because of their 13-9 advantage over the Angels in the last two years, including 6-3 this year. But relief ace Dan Quisenberry said:
"We need to wake up. Against California the pennant race will smack us in the face and shake us out of worrying about what the Angels are doing or looking for sympathy."
Catcher Jamie Quirk concurred.
"We've been playing as if we're hoping they'd lose rather than looking for our own ways to win.
"I think you'll see a different team over the next four days. We've always been good on a head-to-head basis when we've had to be."
The Angels' Reggie Jackson, who has traveled this route before, said a one-game lead didn't mean the race was over. Jackson said he was still haunted by Saturday's defeat.
"It was a nightmare," he said. "We gave it away. It was a horse bleep game that will linger until we win because people will talk about the could-haves and should-haves. We've got to keep the hammer out.
"I mean, a one-game lead might force them to win three, but it doesn't matter what you take in, only what you take out. It doesn't matter that we've got Candelaria and Sutton and Witt pitching. It doesn't matter how you start, only how you finish."
McCaskill finished what he started Sunday, shaking off the pressure to pitch his sixth complete game, tying Mike Witt for the club lead.
He allowed two runs in the first, then only one more.
Said Grich: "That kind of pressure game will make him that much better in Texas or the playoffs or next year. That kind of game from a rookie is a plus because you can't anticipate it. There's just no way to predict it."
A single by Grich, double by Jackson (who had been 0 for 11) and sacrifice fly by Bob Boone got McCaskill a 1-0 lead in the second. Grich singled again and Boone doubled in a three-run third that Rod Carew opened with a double. The beat continued in the fifth, when Dick Schofield tripled in two runs and Carew singled in another. Darrell Miller hit his first big league homer in the eighth.
Pat Corrales, the frustrated Cleveland manager, yanked starter Curt Wardle with two out in the third, then employed three successors. He called Mauch after the game to wish the Angels good luck, his Indians having done their best by winning two of the three games.
The win in the third game enabled the Angels to keep a promise they had made to themselves after losing two of three to Kansas City in Anaheim in early September, eventually falling three back on Sept. 14.
"We had a meeting after that series and kind of promised ourselves that we'd be tied or leading them going into Kansas City," Mauch said. "There was no formula, no master plan. There was only the feeling we could do it. I'm sure no one believes the job is done."