The Kansas City Royals, believed by many to be the best team in the American League West before the season started, have been struggling all year right around the .500 mark.
''Fortunately we're part of a division where probably no team is going to win by more than two or three games,'' said Manager Dick Howser. ''Right now I'd take my chances with 90 victories, although I still think we're a team that could have won more games if we hadn't had so many injuries.''
''Every city we visit when we're on the road, I have writers come up and ask me if the Texas Rangers are for real,'' Howser continued. ''Well, Texas has great pitching and Texas is for real. There aren't many better pitchers around right now than Rick Honeycutt, who has an outstanding sinker.
''Honeycutt pitched a game against us earlier this year in which our first nine batters were all retired on ground balls. I remember a couple of years ago, I think it was, when the umpires caught Rick cutting the ball with a thumbtack he had hidden in his glove. But he's so good now that all he needs is his regular stuff.''
Asked about the California Angels and the Chicago White Sox, the other two principal AL West contenders, Howser replied:
''The Angels won it last year and they still have all those great hitters. For example, say you stop Rod Carew, Brian Downing, and Fred Lynn for one game; you still have to deal with Doug DeCinces, Reggie Jackson, and Bobby Grich. You know a team is good when it goes without its two best pitchers for a while (he meant Bruce Kison and Geoff Zahn) and still stays in the race.
''As for the White Sox, they had some pitching problems for a while that held them back. But with starters like LaMarr Hoyt, Floyd Bannister, and Rich Dotson working for them, Chicago isn't apt to lose many games in a row.''
However, Howser also says that when Kansas City has everybody available, the Royals are as good on paper as any team in the American League.
''We've got people who can run (Willie Wilson and U.L. Washington); we've got people who can hit for average (George Brett, Hal McRae, and Frank White); and we've got people who can hit with power (Willie Aikens and Brett again),'' Dick explained. ''Pitchers have to work extra hard to get through our lineup, and we're also solid defensively.
''We lost a lot of good pitching when Dennis Leonard was injured and sidelined for the season,'' Howser added. ''Then Larry Gura went through a period when he dropped several games in a row. But to me, our other starters are good enough to pull us through as long as we've got people like Dan Quisenberry and Don Hood coming out of the bullpen.''
Quisenberry, who had 20 saves at the All-Star break, is probably the best relief pitcher in the American League, although the Yankees' Goose Gossage throws harder.
The Royals moved recently to bolster their starting pitching by picking up 44 -year-old righthander Gaylord Perry on waivers from the Seattle Mariners. Perry, who was 3-10 with Seattle with a 4.94 earned-run average, has a 310-261 lifetime won-lost record. This will be Gaylord's seventh big league team, and the statistic that may have sold KC on him, despite his poor record, is the fact that he still strikes out almost twice as many hitters as he walks.
Although Perry claims that he stopped using his irrigated delivery years ago (otherwise known as the spitball), opposing players say they would still like to be able to take a towel to the plate whenever this North Carolina peanut farmer is pitching.
Meanwhile, if Gaylord can win somewhere between five and seven games over the second half of the schedule, his presence in a Kansas City uniform will be more than justified.
''Ball clubs should learn from their mistakes, and last year we gave up too many runs on the road - runs we didn't give up at home,'' Howser said. ''I think what we do in that area this season is probably going to be the key for us.''