The California Angels have opened some daylight on their pursuers at the moment, but history tells us that their grip on first place may still be something like that of a small child holding an ice cube. Late-season guarantees are not exactly this team's stock in trade. Three times in the last four years, in fact, the Angels have been with the leaders in September only to fade ingloriously. Sometimes the problem has been pitching; sometimes hitting. Take last season, for example, when California lost the American League West race to the Kansas City Royals by one game after having held first place only a few days before.
Yet, pondering the current stretch drive, one cannot help being impressed by California's four-man starting rotation of Mike Witt, Kirk McCaskill, John Candelaria, and Don Sutton, plus bullpen ace Donnie Moore, who has become one of the game's best closers with runners on base.
The Angels also have the best fielding team in the American League this year, with potential or former gold-glovers in catcher Bob Boone, outfielder Gary Pettis, and infielders Bobby Grich and Dick Schofield. Combine this with the pitching and the prospect of a division title doesn't seem so far fetched.
Then there is the added incentive that this might be the last time around as a group for several veteran members of this team. Reggie Jackson, Grich, Brian Downing, Doug DeCinces, Ruppert Jones, Doug Corbett, Rick Burleson, and Boone are all in the final year of their contracts.
With sophomore general manager Mike Port preaching the virtues of using the farm system to grow your own stars, it is possible that few or none of these high-salaried types will be retained. The exception might be Boone, a favorite of manager Gene Mauch as well as a catcher who can still do the job on the field and would eventually make a fine coach.
Meanwhile, only a major slump at the plate can probably keep first baseman Wally Joyner from being named the American League's Rookie of the Year. Joyner, who hasn't let 22 home runs go to his head, and continues to swing where the ball is pitched, is wise beyond his years. Even though Mauch continues to move Wally up and down his batting order like a zipper on a jacket, the kid has proved that he can hit from any slot.
For Mauch, 1986 could be vindication for a manager who has come tantalizingly close a couple of times, but so far has not won a pennant in 24 years of trying, although the Angels did capture the AL West title for Gene in 1982. Giants stand tall again
At the start of the season, San Francisco was a consensus pick for mediocrity in the National League West. The Giants were coming off a year in which they had just lost 100 games; their pitching was suspect; and they would again be playing 81 home games in Candlestick Park, a hitters' Siberia that can get a club down after a while.
New manager Roger Craig, who had already seen what San Francisco couldn't do over the final 18 games of the 1985 season, was trying to learn anything he could about his players. It proved even tougher than expected when he discovered that 15 were on the disabled list.
Explained Craig: ``It wasn't exactly an ideal late-season situation. But one thing I did learn was that the Giants had an attitude problem that would have to be changed in spring training. They had lost so much they just didn't seem to care anymore.''
Craig's war on negativism began with the early arrival of his pitchers, all of whom were taught Roger's favorite pitch, the split-fingered fastball. His crusade intensified a few days later when Craig told his players to stop talking down the organization. Later it peaked when he insisted they could turn the weather conditions at Candlestick into a plus for themselves.
Basically, what Craig told his players was to learn to live with the wind and cold, and let the opposition dwell on the uncomfortable aspects of playing in the rawness of San Francisco's night air. If previous Giant heroes like Willie Mays, Bobby Bonds, and Willie McCovey could do it, so could they.
``After that we started to look like a ball club,'' Craig said. ``Rookie Will Clark began to hit enough so that we decided to go with him at first base. Then we found a kid named Rob Thompson who could start at second. When we lost a couple of our key pitchers with injuries, Mike LaCoss [who had been released by Kansas City] came in as a walk-on and made our starting rotation.''
While the Giants have not been able to stay with the first-place Houston Astros in the NL West lately, the way they did during the first half of the season, Craig has already won himself a ton of votes as Manager of the Year.