KANSAS CITY — The chill fingers of early winter embraced the Western Division race Monday night.
It was 49 degrees when the showdown series between the Angels and Kansas City Royals began. It was 39 degrees when the first of the four games ended.
"When you're this close to what you've been working toward," Manager Gene Mauch had said in the Angel dugout before the first pitch, "it doesn't matter if you're playing in Siberia.
"I also believe that when you've got some guys with a little mileage on them, this beats the heat and humidity. They don't mind being invigorated."
If invigorated by the weather, the veteran Angels were numbed by a precocious Bret Saberhagen, the 21-year-old graduate of Reseda's Cleveland High.
Saberhagen turned home runs by George Brett and Jim Sundberg into a 3-1 victory, pitching the struggling Royals back into a tie with the Angels for the division lead.
The Royals had scored only seven runs while losing three in a row to Minnesota. They had lost nine of their last 13 games, scoring a total of 38 runs.
Saberhagen supplied an antidote in what Brett called "the most important game of the year for us. I mean, we had to win it more than the Angels did. I'm sure they believe that if they come out of here with a lead, they've got it won."
The Angels must win two of the next three to leave with a game lead Thursday night. It can't get any tougher than it was in the opener.
A crowd of 34,200 saw Saberhagen strike out 10 and allow only four singles in addition to a second-inning homer by Doug DeCinces, his 18th. Saberhagen has a career record of 4-1 against the Angels. He has won 10 of his last 11 decisions and is 20-6 on the season, becoming the fifth-youngest pitcher in baseball history to reach that 20-win plateau.
John Candelaria, who was on the other side of the Saberhagen masterpiece, said: "I'd like to be his and (Dwight) Gooden's agent."
Said Mauch: "Candy gave us a chance to win it, but Saberhagen didn't.
"He and Bert Blyleven have consistently been the best right-handers against us. I told Don Sutton on the bench that a kid that age just isn't supposed to know that much about pitching. He's a great athlete with a great arm.
"He's just very well-rounded--for a skinny kid."
DeCinces agreed. He had homered as the leadoff batter in the second, his sixth homer in the last 14 games. He flied out in the fourth, struck out in the sixth and walked with two out in the ninth.
Saberhagen then needed only three pitches, all fastballs, to bag Reggie Jackson, Jackson never swung, but then it's not until today that he becomes Mr. October.
"In my opinion," DeCinces said, "Saberhagen would get the same acclaim as Gooden if he was in New York. I'm not saying he's Gooden's equal. He doesn't strike out as many. He's overpowering in a different way.
"I mean, I never got a pitch to hit after the home run. It shows you his command. He was cutting it, sinking it, running it away from me. He even did a little Quisenberry on me (using a submarine motion)."
With the left-handed-hitting Jackson (1 for his last 18 at-bats) and Ruppert Jones (1 for 26) battling a slump, the Angels mounted only one real threat against Saberhagen.
Reserve shortstop Craig Gerber, starting because he was 5 for 6 against Saberhagen this year, opened the third with a single and advanced on a Bob Boone sacrifice. Rod Carew then singled to left, where Lonnie Smith, playing shallow, came up with the ball at about the same time Gerber hit third and received a surprising go sign from coach Moose Stubing.
Smith's throw was several feet up the first-base line but so far ahead of Gerber that catcher Sundberg easily retrieved it and got back in time to make the tag. Carew took second, but Jones then struck out, ending the inning.
"The man running has above-average speed while the man in left has a below average arm," Stubing said.
"I was in position to stop him if I had wanted to, but I figured we were going to need more than one run. Am I second guessing myself? No, never."
"When a guy doesn't have the reputation of being a real good thrower, sometimes you take a chance."
Candelaria emerged 6-3, though pitching almost as well as he had in a 7-1 victory over the Royals Sept. 9. Brett hit a hanging curve for his career-high 26th homer in the fourth. Sundberg, sidelined between Aug. 17 and Sept. 14 with a pulled rib cage muscle, broke the 1-1 tie with his 10th home run to dead center in the seventh, jumping on a fastball down the heart of the plate.
It was a taut 2-1 in the eighth when Willie Wilson tripled and Brett scored him with a fly to right. The two RBIs gave Brett 103. He hit just .223 in September, the eye of the Kansas City offensive slump.
"This was as good as I've swung in a month," he said. "I saw a statistics sheet for September today and couldn't believe it. It was depressing, but I believe it's behind me.
"If I can have good fundamentals against Candelaria, I can have good fundamentals against any pitcher. He can be nasty against left-handed hitters."
Kansas City Manager Dick Howser had held a pregame meeting, telling his team that as bad as it had played recently it was still in the race.
"Dick told us to forget it and go out and play the way we can," Brett said.
"If we play this way the rest of the season, there are going to be some smiling faces in Kansas City."
Mauch wasn't smiling, but he wasn't frowning.
"The first game is no more important than the next three," he said. "That's the nice thing about coming in with a one-game edge. The first one doesn't kill you."
Manager Gene Mauch said he has decided to start Mike Witt (13-9), who had been scheduled to pitch on Wednesday night, against Charlie Leibrandt (13-9) tonight. Ron Romanick, tonight's original starter, will pitch on Wednesday night.