Right-hander Bret Saberhagen of the first-place Kansas City Royals is what the trade calls a franchise pitcher - that is, a stopper-type that a team can build its staff around. With his stuff, Bret has a chance to win every time he walks out on the mound, even if the Royals don't score a lot of runs for him. In 1985 at age 21, Saberhagen was both the American League Cy Young Award winner and the World Series MVP, gaining the latter honor by winning both the key third game and the decisive seventh contest.
A year later, hampered by shoulder and foot injuries, he saw his victory total drop from 20 to 7, and his complete games from 10 to 4. He also was able to pitch only 156 innings compared to 235.1 the previous season.
But after a winter of rest and rehabilitation, Saberhagen is back as good as new: the first 10-game winner this year in the major leagues. He has a fastball that explodes down and away in the strike zone; a curveball that reminds old-timers of a young Tom Seaver's; and a changeup that can put a hitter's rhythm into limbo.
``The year Bret won 20, he relied mostly on two pitches: his fastball and his changeup, which he throws extremely well,'' said Kansas City pitching coach Gary Blaylock. ``Even though he also threw a curveball and a hard slider, he never really had control of either of them. Too often they were just waste pitches.
``That's why we decided to take the hard slider away from him in spring training and have him work on perfecting his curveball, which actually fits his mechanics a lot better,'' Blaylock continued. ``Now he can consistently get hitters out with his curveball, where before it was just there. I won't say that's the chief reason for Bret's fast start this season, but that's part of it.''
Saberhagen reportedly is also a lot more disciplined on days when he is scheduled to work than he was last year, when on at least one occasion he came to the park early, not to work on some of his problems, but to film a car commercial. This year he definitely seems more organized, more able to block out distractions, and more willing to challenge the hitters with a fastball that has been clocked as high as 96 m.p.h.
Meanwhile, the Royals, who have a reputation for playing their best baseball after the July All-Star break, are off to one of their fastest starts in years. That big push, incidentally, has come without much help from third baseman George Brett, who has twice been sidelined by injuries.
New manager Billy Gardner has been able to offset Brett's loss offensively by working three new players into the lineup: outfielder Danny Tartabull and designated hitter Juan Beniquez, who were acquired in trades, plus rookie Kevin Seitzer, who has come up from the farm system. Seitzer has been playing third in Brett's absence but can also play first base or the outfield, and with a .300-plus batting average he has undoubtedly nailed down a place in the lineup somewhere.
Bo Jackson, the 1985 Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn who chose baseball over football, has also had some big moments in his rookie season although he still strikes out far more often than he should.
Last season the Royals were never really in the hunt, ending up 16 games behind the victorious California Angels in the AL West. The current team, however, is playing a lot more like the world champions of 1985 than the also-rans of a year ago. And the best description of these 1987 Royals probably belongs to Gardner, who simply says his team is ``hungry.'' Elsewhere in the majors
A source close to the situation says Cincinnati manager Pete Rose will indeed find a spot for himself on the Reds' roster before the end of the season. The word is that even though Pete knows he can no longer hit with his old consistency, he'll return with the blessing of the Reds' front office to activate a substantial bonus clause in his contract. However, no such bonus is expected to be available to Rose next season.
With the help of a clubhouse man, Philadelphia slugger Mike Schmidt recently cut open both a 1987 and a 1986 National League baseball. ``We took out the rubber core in the center of each ball and, from an equal height, dropped both simultlaneously on a cement floor,'' Schmidt told me. ``The '87 core bounced higher every time. Of course the ball is livelier this year! In fact, I gave up on four of my first 13 home runs this year as having no chance to go out of the ballpark. I never made that mistake before.''
As part of baseball's regular umpiring rotation, Pam Postema is working in the American Association this year after four seasons in the Pacific Coast League. The 33-year-old Postema, who has advanced farther than any woman umpire so far, still hopes to be promoted to the majors. However, she also knows that if she doesn't make it by 35, she probably won't make it at all.
After recklessly extending most of his body into the stands to catch a foul ball against the Red Sox, outfielder Daryl Boston of the Chicago White Sox told reporters: ``It's a good thing it was seat cushion night!''