White Sox, Orioles mirror each other's power, pitching in American League playoffs
If it all comes down to pitching and three-run homers, as Earl Weaver used to say, then the 1983 American League playoffs should be quite an interesting matchup.
Both the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox have just the right ingredients for that kind of game - and plenty of them. Indeed, when you examine the statistics of the two division champions on the mound and in the power department they seem to be virtual carbon copies of each other.
So this best-of-five series beginning in Baltimore today doesn't figure to be the matador-bull, speedsters vs. fencebusters type of duel we sometimes anticipate in these post-season clashes (last year's World Series, for instance). Instead, it should be a case of two very similar clubs finding out which one can contain the other's sluggers - if indeed either pitching staff is up to such a task.
Over the years, of course, hitting has usually been conspicuous by its absence on the South Side of Chicago - even when the White Sox were winning. The world champions of 1906 were known as the ''hitless wonders,'' and that tradition continued for decades, culminating in the town's most recent American League champions, the ''Go-Go Sox'' of 1959, who were another collection of batting lightweights forced to get by on speed, hustle, defense, and pitching.
But things have changed dramatically in the Windy City these days, as indicated by the fact that the 1983 White Sox ranked well up among the league leaders in home runs with 157. The big guns were rookie outfielder Ron Kittle, who finished third individually with 35, and designated hitter Greg Luzinski, who had 32. Meanwhile catcher Carlton Fisk hit 26 and outfielder Harold Baines 20, giving the Sox four players with 20 or more homers for the first time in their history.
Baines had 101 RBIs, Kittle 97, Luzinski 95, and Fisk 86 - adding up to quite a thunderous array in the middle of the batting order. The White Sox have the ''table setters'' for these sluggers, too, in speedsters Rudy Law and Julio Cruz (77 and 57 stolen bases respectively) plus .300 hitter Tom Paciorek.
Not too many teams are able to match those statistics, but one that can is Baltimore. The Orioles, in fact, outhit the White Sox for average during the season and blasted a major league-leading 169 home runs. MVP candidates Eddie Murray (.307, 33 homers, 111 RBIs) and Cal Ripken (.318, 27, 101) are the big guns in the attack; Ken Singleton is another solid force; and elsewhere the O's platoon an array of productive if somewhat unsung hitters like John Lowenstein, Gary Roenicke, Al Bumbry, John Shelby, Dan Ford, Jim Dwyer, etc., according to who is pitching for the opposition.
Clearly these are both tough teams to stop on offense, but then you look at the pitching staffs and realize that they are also both tough teams to score upon. Only the Texas Rangers, in fact, had a better team earned run average than the Orioles and White Sox, who finished with identical 3.65 marks. Chicago had the pitchers with the big numbers in Cy Young Award candidates LaMarr Hoyt ( 24-10) and Richard Dotson (22-7), backed up by $6 million free agent acquisition Floyd Bannister (15-10) - and this trio has been even more outstanding in the second half of the season, compiling a combined 42-5 record since the All-Star break. In terms of overall won-lost percentage, however, the Orioles are right up there too with left-handers Scott McGregor (18-7) and Mike Flanagan (12-4) plus spectacular rookie Mike Boddicker, who had a 16-8 record along with the best ERA (2.77) of any starter in the league.
Both clubs also have plenty of depth in the starting and relief departments. Baltimore's regular season bullpen of Tippy Martinez, Sammy Stewart, and Tim Stoddard was much stronger than its rather nondescript Chicago counterpart, but when it comes to the playoffs, starters frequently wind up in relief roles too, so the whole thing gets pretty hard to figure.
Defensively there isn't too much to choose either - thanks mainly to Chicago's tremendous improvement in that area this season. Defense has been the White Sox' Achilles heel the last couple of years, and was still a problem early this season, but the acquisition of slick-fielding Julio Cruz in June coupled with the insertion of rookie Scott Fletcher at shortstop has turned things around in the infield, while the speedy Law and the spectacular Baines anchor a strong outer cordon. Meanwhile, of course, Baltimore has the usual solid defense that has been a trademark of its winning teams for many years.
One area where Chicago does have a big edge is speed. Law alone stole more bases than the entire Baltimore team, and overall the White Sox had a 165-62 advantage in this department. But Baltimore catcher Rick Dempsey is one of the best around defensively, and the Oriole pitchers do a good job of holding runners on the bases, so those figures may not be quite as lopsided as they seem when it comes to head-to-head play.
As for the managers, Tony La Russa of Chicago and Joe Altobelli, who replaced the legendary Weaver this year at Baltimore, are both new to post-season play.
Chicago had the best record in baseball this year, 99-63, with Baltimore right behind at 98-64. The White Sox ran away with the AL West title by 20 games , breaking the 1936 Yankees' league record for the biggest winning margin. But this statistic, as well as their entire record, has to be weighed against the fact that they played in the most pitiful division since the current format was established in 1969 - one so weak that second place Kansas City finished under . 500.
The White Sox, in fact, haven't played a game that really meant anything for more than a month, which is not exactly the recommended preparation for post-season play - especially for a team on which all but a handful of players will be facing playoff pressure for the first time in their big league careers. The Orioles, of course, are old hands at this sort of thing (this is the team's seventh playoff appearance, and with a couple of notable exceptions such as Ripken, nearly everyone on the roster has participated in anywhere from one to all six of the previous series). This year's club also had the benefit of a tougher battle in the rugged East Division, even though the O's, too, eventually did pull away.
Baltimore (which won the season series between the teams 7-5) appears to be the stronger club in terms of a 162-game campaign. On the other hand, except for the experience factor, the White Sox with those two 20-game winners may actually be a team team better suited for a short playoff series. So it could go either way.
The pitching matchup for tonight's opener in Baltimore is Hoyt vs. McGregor, followed by Bannister vs. Boddicker in Game 2 Thursday night, Flanagan vs. Dotson when the series shifts to Chicago Friday night, possibly Davis vs. Burns in Game 4, and then no holds barred, of course, if it comes down to a fifth game.