Evenly matched Jays, Royals duel for American League pennant

Toronto and Kansas City, a pair of division winners who still have a few things to prove, launch baseball's annual post-season action tonight in the opener of the American League's best-of-seven championship series. The Blue Jays, of course, are the ``new kid on the block,'' the nine-year-old expansion franchise making its initial appearance in the playoffs and hoping to bring the World Series to Canada for the first time ever.

The Royals, meanwhile, are the ``old hands'' -- West Division champions for the sixth time in the last 10 years. Their playoff record, however, is just 1-4, and the lone time they did win (1980), they lost the World Series. So they too are a ballclub hungry for post-season victory.

As for the teams themselves, it's a tossup which is better equipped to survive this confrontation and move on to the final showdown against the winner of the St. Louis-Los Angeles National League playoff.

Toronto had a better record despite playing in the much tougher East Division. And while the Blue Jays may lack the big names and playoff experience of their rivals, they demonstrated conclusively in the past few weeks that they know how to handle pressure situations.

Manager Bobby Cox's club isn't likely to encounter anything more unnerving than it did in that critical mid-September series it won from the Yankees in their own ``Bronx Zoo.'' Harassed by hostile fans and beaten in the first game, the Jays regrouped and won three straight. Then when it got tight at the end, they beat New York in another clutch game Saturday night for the title-clincher.

One more thing -- and it could be a big factor against a team with a long history of playing much better in its own park than on the road -- the Jays have the home edge in the 2-3-2 format which begins in Toronto tonight.

The Royals, though, have a few pluses of their own -- starting with people named George Brett, Lonnie Smith, Willie Wilson, Frank White, Dan Quisenberry, etc. These and other K.C. players enjoy the not inconsiderable advantage of having ``been there before'' -- and Brett and Smith in particular have shown themselves to be consummate big-game players on more than one occasion.

In his five previous playoff appearances, Brett has hit .338 with 6 home runs and 14 RBIs -- climaxed by the dramatic pennant-winning homer off Goose Gossage in 1980. George hit .375 in the World Series that year, too, despite being bothered by physical problems. And in addition to his ``money player'' reputation, he's swinging a hot bat right now, with five home runs in the last six days of the regular season.

Smith is another player who has repeatedly risen to the occasion in post-season action -- hitting .600 for Philadelphia in the 1980 National League playoffs and leading St. Louis with a .321 average in the 1982 World Series. Lonnie is one of the game's most exciting leadoff men, too, and teams with the equally spectacular Wilson and the hard-hitting Brett to give the Royals a top of the lineup that is pretty hard to stop.

Toronto, though, didn't beat the Yankees et al. with a lineup of banjo hitters -- and while George Bell, Lloyd Moseby, Jesse Barfield, & Co. may not be as well known as their Kansas City counterparts, the Blue Jays as a team outhit the Royals by nearly 20 points and outscored them buy 75 or so runs over the course of the season.

There isn't much to choose in pitching -- the teams ranked 1-2 in the league -- but here too Toronto had a slight statistical edge. The Jays have a lot of depth, with a solid group of starters headed by Doyle Alexander, Jimmy Key, and Dave Stieb, and with an excellent relief corps led by Tom Henke and Bill Caudill. But Kansas City's rotation headed by Bret Saberhagen and Charlie Liebrandt is also strong, and manager Dick Howser has the big man in the bullpen in Dan Quisenberry.

So it seems even on paper, and when you weigh all the above factors and throw in Kansas City's 7-5 regular season edge, it looks too close to call on the field as well.

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