Royals gel in time to join AL West's down-to-wire baseball race

Until mid July, when sixth-place Kansas City first began to get its act together, the Royals had been like a dull shade of wallpaper in baseball's American League West. If someone had told manager Dick Howser that he would rely on six different shortstops during the season because of injuries and that all would do the job defensively - well, he probably would not have believed them.

At that point the Royals, 11 games under .500 at 40-51, could not really be compared with the pesky California Angels, the surprising Minnesota Twins, or the defending champion Chicago White Sox.

Although Chicago was obviously having some ignition problems, its slow start did not generate the usual concern among its backers. All most of them cared to remember was that the White Sox had won the AL West by 20 games in 1983.

What they figured would happen after a few minor adjustments by Manager Tony LaRussa, was a repeat of last season's second-half runaway. It never happened, though, and by September Chicago was hopelessly out of it.

Meanwhile the Royals, finally putting all their pieces together, had surged into the picture to create what looks like a three-way down-to-the-wire battle for the division title.

Asked to explain his team's 11th-hour awakening, Howser replied: ''People often see what they want to see, and coming out of spring training without Willie Wilson and George Brett made us look vulnerable, I guess. (Wilson was waiting out a drug suspension until May 15; while Brett, recovering from knee surgery, was missing until May 19).

''With the number of kid pitchers we were trying to break in, we probably also seemed suspect on the mound,'' Howser continued. ''But a manager always knows more about his ball club than the fans or the writers do, and anyone in my position would have seen the nucleus of a winner.

''When I have people tell me now that my kid pitchers are much better than they were early in the season, they have no idea what they are talking about. Those kids were good to begin with. They didn't suddenly win because they got better. They won because we finally began scoring some runs for them.''

The relatively young or inexperienced pitchers that Howser is referring to are Bud Black (16-11), plus Charlie Leibrandt, Mike Gubicza, Bret Saberhagen, Mike Jones, Danny Jackson, Joe Beckwith, and Mark Huismann.

Among the Royals' veteran pitchers, nobody has made a more significant contribution than reliever Dan Quisenberry, who is headed for another season of 45 saves, the best anyone has ever done statistically out of the bullpen.

Quisenberry is a submarine ball pitcher who seems to be scooping up a handful of dirt along with the ball when he throws. What the batter sees is a low pitch that sinks on him at just the wrong moment and puts about as much stress on Dan's arm as picking up marshmallows.

''Mostly there are two types of managers in baseball, good and bad,'' Howser told me with a kind of half smile. ''The good ones are the ones with good players, and the bad ones are the ones with bad players.

''I've known pennant-winning managers with every disposition you can think of - loud, quiet, brash, cocky, studious, obnoxious, aggressive, etc. So obviously, temperament at the field level has very little to do with success or failure in baseball.

''You win when you've got the pitching, and the chemistry on the rest of your ball club that year is just right. The one thing I try not to do is overmanage.''

Prior to splitting a four-game series last week with the Angels, Howser said he felt the race in the AL West would remain close, probably going to the final day of the season.

''Minnesota has three starting pitchers (Frank Viola, John Butcher, and Mike Smithson) who are better than anything we or the Angels have,'' Howser volunteered. ''That should be enough to keep the Twins rolling. Although we have done alright so far against California, I hate to play a team like that down the stretch because they have so many experienced hitters in their lineup. (California is in Kansas City right now for four games in three days as the final week of the season begins).

''But as much as I respect the Twins and the Angels, neither of them has a Quisenberry in their bullpen. With Quisenberry, plus players like Brett, Wilson, Hal McRae, and Frank White, who have been in tight races before, I have to like our chances.''

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