Well `armed' Angels will make strong pitch for another title

This year's California Angels figure to be a test case for all those people who have riveted themselves to the theory that pitching is 75 percent of major league baseball. With a starting rotation featuring Mike Witt, Kirk McCaskill, John Candelaria, and Don Sutton, the Angels (even if they don't hit any better than last season) should never have any long losing streaks this year. The 26-year-old Witt has reached the point where he can match his all-around statistics (18 wins last year along with 14 complete games, 208 strikeouts, and a 2.84 earned-run average) with those of similar craftsmen like Roger Clemens, Jack Morris, and Bert Blyleven. Mike has a curveball that gives hitters whiplash when they swing at it, and a fastball that practically sinks out of sight.

While McCaskill's power isn't discussed as much as Witt's, Kirk struck out 100 more batters in '86 than he did the year before, and is not so far away from a 20-win season. Even though McCaskill, a Canadian native, was the first collegian picked in the 1981 National Hockey League draft (by Winnipeg in the fourth round), the Jets never got much of a chance to watch his skating skills develop before the Angels grabbed him.

Candelaria and Sutton, the old-timers in the pack, continue to pitch well by using their heads. They have extended their careers by learning to change speeds in ways that break a hitter's rhythm. Sutton should be close to 15 wins again, while Candelaria (who was injured and pitched only seven innings before last year's July All-Star break, then won 10 in the second half of the season) could again become one of the best left-handers in baseball.

Although manager Gene Mauch isn't worried about a fifth starter right now, he already knows he has a potentially satisfactory one in Urbano Lugo, who recently threw a no-hitter in Venezuela in winter ball.

Right-hander Donnie Moore (21 saves a year ago) will be Mauch's closer out of the bullpen, with left-handers Gary Lucas and Chuck Finley playing a supporting role. When Moore is in peak form he can end a rally either by striking people out or getting them to hit into double plays.

Wally Joyner, runner-up to Oakland's Jose Canseco in last season's American League Rookie of the Year balloting, is set at first base, with veteran Doug DeCinces at third and sure-handed Dick Schofield at shortstop. Mauch probably won't experiment with those infield positions unless it's to rest DeCinces occasionally. At second base, rookie Mark McLemore has the inside track if he can hit enough to hold the job, with veteran Rob Wilfong waiting in the wings if he can't.

Gary Pettis, who the Angels someday envision stealing 100 bases, will be in center field, probably flanked by Jack Howell in left and Devon White in right. Howell, who lost his chance at third base when DeCinces signed a new contract, is looked upon as a strong RBI man. But White, who may be as good in the field as Pettis, will have to hit early or lose his job to either George Hendrick or Ruppert Jones.

Brian Downing, the pick-and-shovel ballplayer who previously patrolled left field, will replace Reggie Jackson as the designated hitter. Jackson, after five years in Anaheim, moved on to Oakland as a free agent when the Angels decided not to pick up his option - partly because of his enormous salary and partly because his 58 RBIs were not what the club had in mind.

Even though Mauch was tremendously disappointed when California was unable to agree on a new contract with catcher Bob Boone, Gene is going with the party line that Butch Wynegar can handle the job. Wynegar, acquired in a trade with the Yankees, previously played well for Mauch when he managed the Minnesota Twins. If Butch doesn't work out, the door is open for Boone to return to the Angels on May 1.

For Mauch, of course, the ultimate goal is the pennant-winner that has eluded him throughout a 25-year managerial career that has been marked by some famous near-misses (i.e., the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies and both the 1982 and '86 Angels).

When Milwaukee overcame an 0-2 deficit to knock the Angels out of the '82 playoffs, Gene resigned, his move reportedly triggered by front office criticism of his managing which he considered unfair. John McNamara, who succeeded Mauch, led the team to 23 fewer wins in 1983 and saw it finish in a tie for fifth place in the AL West. After an 11-game improvement in 1984, McNamara left to become manager of the Red Sox, partly because of his close friendship with Boston owner Haywood Sullivan.

By this time, Mauch was ready to come back to baseball. And with the help of young players like Witt, McCaskill, Schofield, and Pettis, the 1985 Angels finished only one game behind the Kansas City Royals, who would go on to win the World Series.

Then last year they went all the way in their division, only to lose out to Boston in the playoffs.

Asked recently about that series, in which the Angels lost after leading three games to one and being just one strike away from the World Series in Game 5, Mauch told reporters: ``It's the first thing I think about every morning. It was like a punch in the stomach. I get up with it and then it passes.''

For California to defend its AL West championship and give Mauch another shot at that coveted World Series berth, the Angels will have to beat out a young and improved Texas team that surprised everybody last season, plus a Kansas City club that has made some impressive changes to increase its hitting power.

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