Royals eye upset over Tigers in AL playoff

On paper, there's really no comparison between American League playoff foes Detroit and Kansas City. Over a 162-game season the Tigers undoubtedly would win in a walk. But strange things happen in these best-of-five series, as history attests - and we have it on good authority that the Royals do plan to show up!

The Tigers were baseball's dominant team this season with a best-in-the-game record of 104-58. They outscored every other team in the American League and also allowed the fewest runs - a pretty impressive parlay. They have plenty of hitting led by MVP candidate Alan Trammell (.314), Lance Parrish (33 homers), and Kirk Gibson, who was among the league leaders in slugging percentage and game-winning RBIs. They have outstanding pitching, both in the starting rotation (Jack Morris, Dan Petry, and Milt Wilcox) and in a superb bullpen headed by Willie Hernandez (79 appearances, 32 saves) and Aurelio Lopez (70 and 14). They're strong in the traditional up-the-middle area with all that pitching, a solid catcher in Parrish, a fine double play combination in shortstop Trammell and second baseman Lou Whitaker, and a top centerfielder in Chet Lemon. Finally, they have a great manager in Sparky Anderson, who won all those pennants and World Series in Cincinnati in the 1970s. What more could any team ask?

Well, going into a tension-packed playoff series, one thing it might wish for in retrospect is to have been tested a little more during the regular season. A cakewalk is nice while your're having it - and the Tigers certainly had one in the AL East. It's hard to keep skills sharp, though, when a team hasn't played a game that really meant anything for a couple of months.

Kansas City doesn't have that problem. The Royals came down to the final weekend before clinching the AL West title Friday night - a bit of timing that couldn't have been better if they'd written the script themselves.

It's always a question who has the edge in the classic matchup of a team that wins early (possibly losing its sharpness) and one that goes down to the wire (risking exhaustion and a messed-up pitching rotation). Thus by clinching just prior to the final weekend, Kansas City gets the best of both worlds as far as the timing goes.

Of course the fact that the Royals had to battle so hard to win out in such a pitiful division doesn't say too much for their credentials as a potential World Series participant. Indeed, their season record of 84-78 is the worst by far of any of this year's playoff teams, as well as the worst of any American League division winner in history. An idea of how bad the AL West was this year can be seen by the fact that K.C.'s record would have been good enough for only sixth place in the AL East - behind not only Detroit but also Toronto, New York, Boston, and Baltimore.

If there's any justice, then, the Tigers should prevail. But justice doesn't always seem to be served in these playoffs, nor does the best team always win - as we saw in 1973, for instance, when the New York Mets finished just over .500, then got hot in the playoffs and knocked off one of those great Big Red Machine teams from Cincinnati. The losing manager in that one, of course, was none other than Sparky Anderson - and nobody has to tell him that the Royals have enough going for them to be capable of another such upset.

It only takes a couple of hot hitters and pitchers to turn things upside-down in a short series - and the Royals certainly have some candidates. George Brett is as good a big-game player as you'll find - as witness his dramatic three-run homer off Goose Gossage in Yankee Stadium to win the pennant in 1980, and his . 375 batting average in the ensuing World Series. Willie Wilson is a great offensive player who has streaks where he seems to be on base all the time. And although K.C.'s starting rotation doesn't appear to match up very well with that of Detroit, premier reliever Dan Quisenberry does give manager Dick Howser one tremendous weapon on the mound anytime his club can manage to get him a lead from the seventh inning on.

These and some of the other veteran Royals like Frank White and Hal McRae have ''been there before,'' too, giving them a solid edge over the Tigers in playoff experience - though Kansas City, which was supposed to be in a rebuilding year this season, also has a lot of key players who will be experiencing post-season pressure for the first time.

As for their head-to-head meetings this year, the Royals dominated the action at Detroit 5-1 and the Tigers retaliated by winning all six games in Kansas City to capture the season series 7-5. As one can see, the visitors thus came out on top 11-1 - so forget about any such thing as the ''home field advantage.''

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