Anaheim, Calif. — For weeks the Baltimore Orioles have been chipping away at the New York Yankees' huge first-place lead in the American League East, a position New York has held convincingly since May 14.
Now, with the first glimmer of September starting to show on the horizon, New York and Baltimore look like two guys riding the same motorcycle. Finally there is a race in the AL East where there wasn't one before and the pressure is beginning to tell on the combatants.
Most members of the Yankees, and this includes manager Dick Howser, seem reluctant to let anyone know what they are thinking; whether theirs is merely a natural concern for a team that has lost its advantage or if panic has set in.
But veteran NY pitcher Luis Tiant, whose Cuban English sometimes breaks as sharply as his curve ball, threw verbal strikes the other night at California's Anaheim Stadium when he explained the Yankees' position to me.
"We are in big fight with Baltimore now, but we win because we best team," Tiant said. "They got good pitching, we got good pitching. They got good infield and outfield, we got better. You no look back in situation like this and complain. Everybody go out and do what he has to do. That how you win."
"At first -- you know at beginning of season -- it easy for us," Luis continued. "We win and build big lead. But no team wins pennant in April and May. Season too long to take anything for granted and even good teams have one, maybe two slumps a year. Baltimore come back because it always good team and because it win so many one-run games. But we can do that too.
"Right now we feel a little pressed maybe and we try too hard to win. When we just go out and play our own game, that when we win. But I not worried. Position for position we got better players than they do. We got more power. When things get really tight, our old pros will win it for us."
Part of the reason the Yankees haven't been as tough as they were earlier is because they miss the power bat of third baseman Graig Nettles and the lead-off ability of second baseman Willie Randolph.
Over the past three years Nettles has had the third highest home-run total in the American League. His 159 is topped only by teammate Reggie Jackson's 180 and by Jim Rice's 172 with the Boston Red Sox.
Graig, who always seems to hit well with men on base, is currently sidelined with a physical problem that has him on New York's disabled list until Sept. 15. Howser says he isn't counting on him at all.
Randolph, who is a whiz at starting the double play, is also a fine table setter who is consistently on base and, until he got hurt, led the Yankees in runs scored. Willie should be back in the lineup soon.
Eric Soderholm (good bat, average field) has been splitting Nettles' third base time with Aurelio Rodriguez, who New York picked up from San Diego in a late- season waiver deal. Brian Doyle, who often plays extremely well for short periods of time, has been Randolph's No. 1 replacement at second base, although Rodriguez has also been used there.
Assuming that Baltimore and New York are as close personnel-wise as Tiant says they are, most baseball scouts would probably take the Orioles' pitching staff ahead of the Yankees'.
Although New York has two tremendous left-handers in Tommy John and Ron Guidry, plus maybe the best bullpen pitcher in the AL in Rich Gossage, and recently got Gaylord Perry from the Texas Rangers, Baltimore has more depth.
While Howser must look for just the right spot for pitchers like Tiant, Perry , Rudy May and Tom Underwood. Oriole manager Earl Weaver has no one on his staff who is drawing social security.
Baltimore's Steve Stone (21 victories already) probably is going to be the AL's Cy Young Award winner while Weaver can also call on Jim Palmer, Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan, and Dennis Martinez. Earl also has a strong bullpen in Tim Stoddard and Tippy Martinez.
Both the Yankees and the Orioles play 28 games in September. Although NY with 17 has one more game at home than Baltimore, this is hardly a significant factor at this point.
Tiant says that he does not expect that New York will win the AL East by much , but he does expect them to finish ahead of Baltimore.