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Pitching may be Royals' trump card in year after championship

With spring training just around the corner, baseball writer Phil Elderkin assesses the defending division champions in each of four weekly reports, starting today with the Kansas City Royals. Defending champions in most sports, and big-league baseball is no exception, often seem to lose much of their staying power the following season. Not many even repeat as division winners, and those that do manage this feat have a tendency to go flat and get themselves zapped in the playoffs or the World Series.

And then there are the 1986 Kansas City Royals. The defending World Series champs can't offer any puncture-proof guarantees, either, but with a pitching staff that goes deeper than a million-dollar oil well, they have obviously planned carefully for the future. For pitching, as we all know, can carry a team a long way.

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You probably won't find a better manager, either, than Dick Howser, whose low-key disposition makes him well suited to work with the club's veterans. While Howser might offer a suggestion on how to snap out of a slump, he would never presume to tell a George Brett how to hit, a Frank White how to field, or a Willie Wilson how to steal bases.

Still, it is the pitching (both starting and relief) that puts this team on a pedestal. Where else in the American League will you find five starters the equal of Bret Saberhagen (20-6), Charlie Leibrandt (17-9), Danny Jackson (14-12), Mark Gubicza (14-10), and Bud Black (10-15, but a 17-game winner the previous season)?

This is Howser's security blanket, as well as his passport to perhaps another championship. And if the trade rumors ticketing Gubicza to Boston for outfielder Dwight Evans should prove accurate, the Royals already have a replacement in mind in David Cone, who pitched so well last season at their farm club in Omaha.

Saberhagen, the Cy Young Award winner, was forever winning key games last year. The 21-year-old right-hander won the game that pulled the Royals even with California with one week left. He was on the mound the night Kansas City clinched the AL West title. He pitched twice in the playoffs, and his team won both games. Finally, after the Royals had lost the first two games of the World Series and appeared all but finished, he won the critical third game in St. Louis, 6-1, then came back later to blank the Cardinals 11-0 in the seventh and deciding contest.

On days when Bret and his colleagues can't stretch their performance past seven innings, Howser can always wave to Dan Quisenberry to come in from the bullpen.

Dan's submarine delivery keeps his pitches so low that most ballpark worms are now insuring with Lloyd's of London. Last year ``the Quiz'' made 84 appearances, saved 37 games, and won 8.

Behind Quisenberry are hard-throwing youngsters Steve Farr, Mike Jones, and Mark Huismann -- all toughened by the experience of a tight pennant race followed by dramatic come-from-behind playoff and World Series victories.

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Although every American League team except Texas scored more runs last year than K.C., this is still a team that is tough to pitch against in the clutch.

If George Brett isn't the best hitter in the league, he's somewhere in the picture. While he lost last year's batting title to Boston's Wade Boggs by 33 points, the Royals' third baseman had the edge in homers (30 to 8) and RBIs (112 to 78). Also, like Boggs, he seldom strikes out.

One Royal who does swing and miss a lot is first baseman Steve Balboni, whose 166 whiffs led the league. But if Balboni can be made to look bad, he reverses the tables often enough (36 homers and 88 RBIs in '85) so that no pitcher ever really feels safe against him.

Kansas City also has one of the game's best table setters at the top of its lineup in Wilson, who not only gets on base a lot but can fly once he gets there. And although people have a tendency to put down the talents of White as a cleanup hitter, the veteran second baseman's 22 home runs last season were a career high.

Considering the lack of any solid-looking competition in their division (California and Chicago appear to be the only semblances of threats), the Royals should be heavy favorites to win out again.

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