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Even in Off Year, Brett's On : Royals' Star Homers as Kansas City Tries to Stay Close to Twins

September 09, 1987|JOHN WEYLER | Times Staff Writer

In 1985, George Brett walked 103 times, third most in the American League. Of course, he also hit .335 and drove in 112 runs. Last season, a shoulder injury kept him out of 38 games and hindered his swing, but opposing pitchers still preferred to pitch around him and he drew 80 walks.

The Royals figured they had finally found a way to force pitchers to throw strikes to their 11-time All-Star when they acquired Danny Tartabull just before last Christmas. With Brett hitting third and Tartabull right behind him in the cleanup spot, 1987 was bound to be another big year for Brett.

Well, you know all about those best-laid plans.

Tartabull has done his part. He already has more homers in a season than any Royal outfielder in history (27) and he has driven in 79 runs.

But Brett injured his rib cage on April 19--doing what he does best, swinging at a pitch--and missed 19 games. He came back for three games and caught a spike while making a throw home, twisted his knee and was out for almost a month again, missing 24 more games.

As a result, three Royals have more RBIs. Little wonder Kansas City has scored fewer runs than any other team in the league.

Since returning to regular duty, Brett has been below average . . . for George Brett that is. He's hitting .290 with 19 homers and 62 RBIs. And he certainly didn't look any less imposing to three different Angel pitchers Tuesday night in the Royals' 4-2 victory at Anaheim Stadium.

Brett made Angel starter Jerry Reuss pay for the mistake of walking Kevin Seitzer in the first inning, lining Reuss' first pitch over the wall in right. He singled to center off Reuss in the fifth and then drove in Willie Wilson with a single to left off reliever Willie Fraser in the seventh.

Gary Lucas, who came in to face Brett with two on and two out in the eighth, had seen enough. He walked Brett (Brett's 58th walk this season) and gave way to DeWayne Buice, who struck out Tartabull.

The Royals didn't need any heroics from a second-year upstart this time, though. Mr. Brett had already taken care of the run-production department. And just maybe it's not too late for an old hand to get a hot hand and lead the struggling Royals on a September pennant chase in the division where nobody seems to want take charge.

Kansas City's win and Minnesota's loss Tuesday night leaves the Royals only 4 1/2 games behind the Twins. The Royals have six games left with Minnesota.

"One of the biggest thrills of my life was playing with the guy," said Royal Manager John Wathan. "Now I'm managing him. Can you think of a guy you'd rather have in a pennant race?"

Brett isn't ready to predict the beginning of a new Kansas City dynasty, but he likes what he has seen the last week as the Royals have won four of their last five.

"If we can play like we have the last few nights," he said, "we've got a chance. We've been there before and we know what we have to do."

You'll have to excuse Brett for exhibiting a trace of doubt. There was a time earlier this year when he felt like the season was a washout.

"The first injury was the toughest," he said. "I mean I've swung a bat maybe 100,000 times in my life and that was the first time I hurt myself. Then I'm back for three days and tear up my knee. I was sitting on the bench, feeling sorry for myself.

"But then I thought, 'Hell, in 1980, I played in only 117 games and drove in 118 runs. There's time left to put up some numbers and help the team.' "

There are at least three Angel pitchers who will attest to that.

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