Orioles, White Sox teams to beat again in American League races

With baseball's pennant races upon us again, it seems necessary to restate one pertinent fact - everything else being equal, championships are invariably won by teams with the best pitching staffs.

While the importance of defense and hitting should never be minimized, pitching is the lubricant upon which clubs slide most easily into the World Series. This includes the bullpen, where late-inning relief specialists who can throw strikes three or four times a week are now fawned over like home run hitting outfielders.

It was no mistake last year when Los Angeles and Philadelphia, the two teams with the best earned run averages in the National League met in the playoffs. While Texas had a slightly lower ERA in the American League than playoff opponents Baltimore and Chicago, the Rangers never overcame a power shortage that left them next to last in runs scored and home runs.

In the 1983 World Series, which Baltimore won from Philadelphia in five games , the Orioles had a staff ERA of l.60; the Phillies 3.48.

Again this year, probably no team in the AL East has more balance or better pitching than Baltimore. Starters Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez , and Mike Boddicker (who didn't join the team until May but still won 16 games) , are all capable of 15 or more victories. The Orioles have plenty of everyday standouts too, led by shortstop Cal Ripken and first baseman Eddie Murray, who finished 1-2 in last year's MVP voting.

Although there is hope in Detroit that the Tigers, after signing free agent Darrell Evans (30 homers, 82 RBIs with San Francisco) are now capable of challenging the Orioles, most experts don't buy that theory completely. The Tigers made a late spring training move to bolster their bullpen, trading with Philadelphia for left-handed reliever Willie Hernandez, who was 9-4 with eight saves last season. Aurelio Lopez (18 saves, but only two in August and September) is the top right-handed reliever.

The New York Yankees have a new manager in Yogi Berra, who is probably going to platoon at first base, third base, and shortstop. Berra is also gambling that former starter Dave Righetti, who threw a no-hitter last year against the Red Sox, can replace Goose Gossage as the bullpen ace.

While Toronto had one of the best young starting staffs in the majors last year, plus the highest team batting average of any AL club, the one thing the Blue Jays lacked was a stopper in the bullpen. They think they have him now in Dennis Lamp, who saved 15 games in '83 for the White Sox. If they do, Toronto isn't apt to fade late in the season the way it did last year.

Injuries ruined the Milwaukee Brewers in 1983 and what figures to be an unpredictable pitching staff in terms of consistency might do the same this season. But there is no ignoring the Brewers' ability to hit or the lift they would get if injured 1982 Cy Young Award winner, Pete Vuckovich, were to regain his pitching form.

Already festooned with long-ball hitters, Boston did a strange thing during the off-season when it traded one of its best pitchers, John Tudor, to Pittsburgh for .300 hitting outfielder-first baseman Mike Easler. Still, the Red Sox should stay out of the cellar as long as Cleveland remains in the league. Although the Indians have some new faces (Tony Bernazard, Brett Butler, George Frazier) there is still a question mark about a pitching staff that allowed almost 4 1/2 runs a game last season.

In the AL West, all that is required for the pitching-rich Chicago White Sox to clinch a second division title is to remember to show up for games. Adding Tom Seaver and Ron Reed to a staff that already includes LaMarr Hoyt, Floyd Bannister, Richard Dotson, and Britt Burns is like adding J. Paul Getty's millions to those of the Rockefellers.

If either Texas or Kansas City hopes to put any pressure on the White Sox, who won by 20 games last year, it will have to be done largely with players who have never performed that well before. The Rangers' big off-season move was acquiring hard-hitting Gary Ward (19 homers, 88 RBIs) from Minnesota. Meanwhile, the Royals may rely on an entirely new outfield this season.

Wealthy in hitting, California will open with a Rip Van Winkle pitching staff of Tommy John, Ken Forsch, and Geoff Zahn, plus 23-year-old Mike Witt. The bullpen has been shaken up to include newcomers Curt Kaufman, Frank LaCorte, and Jim Slaton. The Angels will proably start the season with two rookies - Dick Schofield at shortstop and Gary Pettis in center field.

Oakland and Minnesota get to fly with the Angels only if their pitching improves. The A's have added veteran starters Lary Sorensen and Ray Burris, plus relief ace Bill Caudill, who had 26 saves last year in a Seattle uniform. Mike Smithson and John Butcher, who had a combined won-lost record of 12-20 with Texas in '83, are being counted on for a lot more production by the Twins. But whatever happens, there is no way either of these clubs can be considered contenders.

The Seattle Mariners, who dropped 102 games in 1983, will win some and lose a lot more this year while struggling through yet another rebuilding season.

(Tomorrow: the National League)

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