The Angels, lurching toward another September drive without the healthiest, or happiest, of casts, ran into this season's first mettle detector last weekend.
The location was Baltimore, but it could just as well have been Cleveland, 1985, where the Angels threw a 5-0 eighth-inning lead into Lake Erie during the last week of September, then watched their playoff hopes drown soon thereafter.
This time, once again, Don Sutton was the starting pitcher. Once again, he was removed from the game seemingly prematurely--after five innings and 88 pitches.
Once again, Donnie Moore was given a huge lead to protect in the eighth inning.
And once again, Moore let it all slip away--and more. The Orioles, trailing, 7-3, after seven innings, rallied for five runs against Moore and pulled out an 8-7 victory, pushing the Angels to the edge.
A year ago, the Angels collapsed. The loss in Cleveland was a crusher, sending them reeling into Kansas City, where they lost three of four critical games, eventually falling a game short of the division title.
This year, they could easily have charted the same course. In the clubhouse after the Baltimore give-away, it was so quiet that one could almost have heard a division title drop.
The next day, the Angels lost again, 4-2, when Manager Gene Mauch's late-inning maneuvering backfired.
It was all so familiar. The club's five-game lead had been whittled to three games. It seemed to be time for the traditional prognosis: Look out below.
So how is it that the Angels will open a 10-game home stand tonight against Detroit with their lead over Texas boosted slightly to 3 1/2 games? They have won three straight. They ventured into an old haunt called Yankee Stadium, where they had sweated to salvage just one of four games in May, and emerged with a two-game sweep.
"Pitching," Bobby Grich said. "We have the feeling that with Witt, McCaskill, Sutton and Candelaria, they're going to keep it close every day."
Consider the Angels' three-game winning streak:
--Sunday: Angels 4, Orioles 3. Kirk McCaskill pitched 8 innings, allowing 5 hits.
--Monday: Angels 5, Yankees 3. John Candelaria pitched 5 innings, allowing 2 earned runs before bullpen-by-committee took over.
--Tuesday: Angels 2, Yankees 0. A 4-hitter for Mike Witt.
"Every time Witt, McCaskill, Candelaria and Sutton go out there, we think we're going to win," Mauch said. "And that's healthy."
The '85 Angels had no such feeling. Witt won 15 games, but his performances were as unpredictable as a knuckleball's. McCaskill was a rookie simply trying to earn his keep. Candelaria was still on the road back from baseball's Siberia--the Pittsburgh Pirates' bullpen. And Sutton, a September acquisition from Oakland, was getting acclimated.
This year, Witt has already won 16 games; McCaskill has won 14; Sutton has 11 victories, and Candelaria, back after arm surgery, has 7.
Pitching, in the Angels' case, has been more than the great equalizer. It has also been a great neutralizer--diffusing, at least temporarily, a tense clubhouse situation.
In Baltimore, there had been private grumbling about Mauch overmanaging--that he relied too heavily on the percentages, used too many lineups, was overtaxing Moore in relief.
After Moore had squandered the 7-3 lead to the Orioles last Friday night, one night after working what he considered a superfluous inning in a 6-1 victory over Detroit, he made his sentiments not so private.
"There are other guys on this team who can get people out," said Moore, who has been pitching with a sore shoulder most of the season. "I can't pitch every night. And I can't keep getting up in the bullpen and throwing. I waste too many pitches down there."
Then, of course, there have been the eight Angel veterans in the final years of their contracts. Insecurity has bred dissatisfaction, and although Reggie Jackson, the most outspoken of the group, may have thrown himself on the grenade with his comments in New York, his sentiments have been quietly seconded by several of his teammates.
"It's something we've had to deal with all year," Brian Downing said. "It's not the greatest environment, but it's understood by everybody and we don't really worry about it. Our sole goal, as is Reggie Jackson's sole goal, is to win the World Series."
Said Doug DeCinces: "It makes things uneasy. There's uncertainty here. We've been told, in essence, that 'if you win, things will be a little bit different at the end of the year.'
"If I have to prove I'm a winning ballplayer after five years with this team, that's absurd."
At any rate, it should be an interesting September.
But the Angels are confident, despite the distractions and the discontent, that they will have their October, citing pitching and the competition.
After fading in the stretch against Kansas City in both 1984 and '85, the Angels are looking at something entirely different in 1986--the Texas Rangers, who are strangers to pennant contention.