DETROIT — The 1986 American League Cy Young Award is going to look nice, sitting there on the mantle of Roger Clemens' living room, but before the ballots are cast for the best pitcher in the league, voters are going to have to pay at least half a mind to Mike Witt.
Witt won again Thursday night, pitching all but the last inning of the Angels' 6-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers. That makes six straight wins for Witt, who in this one allowed five singles and no earned runs. His earned-run average over his last six games is 1.30.
Some more numbers: For the season, Witt is 15-7, equaling his career high. His ERA for the season is 2.63, just a shade higher than Clemens' league-leading mark of 2.54.
Ever since 1981, when Witt won eight games as an Angel rookie, the word on him was that the only difference between the tall right-hander and stardom was time.
Perhaps the time is at hand.
"I've been saying it for his last three starts now--Mike Witt is in the top echelon of big-league pitchers," Angel Manager Gene Mauch said.
And how deep does that echelon run?
"If you were counting the best pitchers in baseball on one hand," catcher Bob Boone said, "Mike Witt's got to be one of the fingers."
Thursday night, Witt was matched against the other leading contender in the Cy Young runner-up division, Detroit's Jack Morris. Morris took a 15-7 record into the game and left, four innings later, down by five runs and on his way to loss No. 8.
"A big win," Mauch called it--a win that returned the Angels' first-place lead over Texas to five games.
"We got a split here, which feels pretty good, especially when we're down, two games to one, with Morris walking out there for them," Mauch said.
"But then, we probably feel as strongly about Witt as they feel about Morris."
In the first inning, Morris yielded as many hits as teammate Walt Terrell had yielded the previous night--one. It also put him behind, 1-0, as Reggie Jackson's single to right brought home Gary Pettis from third.
The Angels quickly increased the deficit to 4-0 in the second inning when Morris surrendered, in succession, a run-scoring triple to Dick Schofield, a walk to Boone, a run-scoring single by Pettis and a run-scoring double by Wally Joyner.
Two innings later, Boone made it 5-0 when he delivered his second home run of the series. By the sixth inning, after another Joyner run batted in, Witt was working with a 6-0 lead.
Earlier in his Angel career--including the initial months of this season--Witt could go four starts without seeing six runs scored in his behalf. In four of his seven losses this year, the Angels scored two runs or fewer.
"If we had scored some runs for him early in the season, he'd be having a tremendous personal year," Boone said. "He kept us in a lot of ballgames he never got credited for."
Lately, the Angels have been scoring behind Witt, which accomplishes two important things for the pitcher: It lessens the pressure, which has gotten the better of Witt on more than one occasion, and it affords him a little more leeway with a hitter, enabling him to tinker a bit and challenge a batter.
"When you're in a game where both pitchers have a shutout into the seventh inning, every pitch is extremely important," Witt said of the pressure. Sooner or later, Witt would start thinking about the importance of each pitch and-- pop --there went the ballgame.
But an Angel lead seems to do wonders for Witt's nerves. "He doesn't fall apart anymore," Boone said.
On the advantage of having more leeway, Witt says: "I tend to throw bigger strikes, as far as going for the corner of the plate is concerned."
With more room to work with, Witt has worked his way into a position to become the Angels' first 20-game winner since 1974, when Nolan Ryan went 22-16.
Witt probably has nine more starts remaining, so if he goes 5-4, he wins 20.
He has given the possibility some thought, but not much.
"I don't know if it would mean too much to me," he said. "But it would mean a lot to the club, I guess, because if I win 20 and Kirk McCaskill wins 20, that would push us that much closer to winning the division."
Mauch likes that sort of talk.
"I want him only thinking about win No. 16," Mauch said. "I don't want him thinking about Cy Young this or Pitcher of the Year that. I want him to concentrate on his pitching 100%."
Mauch looked at the assemblage of writers in his office. "You guys complicate the situation enough without me adding to it," he said.
Sorry, Gene. It comes with the territory. And Witt is entering some prime territory. Maybe not Cy Young yet, but the next best thing to it.