Upstarts vs. veterans is the Al game
The exuberance and hunger of playoff newcomers vs. the experience and poise of veteran teams which have "been there before": that's the theme of this week's American League intradivision match-ups.
The Milwaukee Brewers and the new-look-Oakland A's are the upstarts, of course, while the New York Yankees and the defending champion Kansas City Royals are each making their fifth postseason appearance in the last six years.
According to conventional wisdom, a disparity like this confers a big advantage to the experienced club -- but it doesn't always work that way. Remember the 1969 New York Mets? And more recently the 1975 Boston Red Sox, a very-young, rookie-laden team, stopped the old Oakland powerhouse in its drive for a fourth straight world title.
There are more examples the other way, however, so you do have to consider the experience factor in assessing this extra round of preliminary playoffs created for 1981 because of the strike and the split season. But there are plenty of reasons why either or both of the best-of-five series could produce another victory for th neophyte side.
First, let's consider the New York-Milwaukee matchup.
In historical terms, this looks like a mismatch: the winningest team ever against a relatively new franchise which has just won the first title of any sort in its 13-year history -- and that only a half-season divisional crown. And indeed, like many teams over the years, the Brewers doubtless will be a bit awestruck when they first walk into tradition-steeped Yankee Stadium in a playoffs setting
Fortunately for them, however, the first two games are at County Stadium, where the friendly fans and familiar surroundings should help counteract any early jitters.By the time they get to New York they'll realize that history doesn't produce any basehits -- and that the guys in the pinstripes have names like Dave Winfield, Bob Watson, and Jerry Mumphrey -- not Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio.
Indeed, when it comes to team batting and run production, it was Milwaukee, led by such heavy hitters as Cecil Cooper (.320, 12 homers, 60 RBIs), Ben Oglivie (14 homers, 72 RBIs), and Gorman Thomas (21 homers, 65 RBIs), which posted the better statistics during the regular season. And these three were just the cream of one of the game's most fearsome top-to-bottom batting orders.
There's catcher Ted Simmons, who started slowly in his first AL season but still finished with good power stats (14 homers, 61 RBIs) and seemed to be finding his stroke at the end. There's Robin Yount, who enters the playoffs on the crest of a torrid 12-game season-ending streak in which he hit almost .450 and came through with several clutch blows in key games. And in fact there's not really a breather for the opposing pitcher anywhere in the lineup.
Furthermore, although the Brewers are making their first playoff appearance, this is a veteran team that doen't figure to feel the pressure the way a younger one might. That goes double, of course, for their two refugees from the Oakland A's of the early '70s -- Sal Bando and Rollie Fingers.
It is Fingers, in fact, who could be the difference in a short series. The veteran relief ace won six games, saved 28, and posted a 1.04 earned run average in one of this greatest seasons ever -- one that may well earn him the Cy Young Award or even Most Valuable Player honors -- and if the Brewers can keep games close until its time for his late-inning thing, they could be hard to beat.
That job falls to the starters, who except for Pete Vuckovich (14-4) were not that imposing for the season as a whole. Some of them came on late, however, and of course Mike Caldwell has a reputation as a "Yankee killer" (9-2 vs. New York lifetime), although the Bronx Bombers did rough him up pretty badly in his most recent start against them.
As for the Yankees, they have several familiar names from recent playoffs plus some new ones like Winfield and Mumphrey. Statistically there were some disappointments this year, such as Reggie Jackson, who hit only 237. But "Mr. October" has a way of rising to the occasion in these postseason clashes -- and of carrying a team with him.
New York's biggest edge, however, appears to be its starting pitching -- especially left-handers Ron Guidry, Tommy John, and the rookie Dave Righetti -- plus a pretty fair bullpen of its own led by fireballing Goose Gossage.
In the end it may come down to a question of whether the Yankees, who won the first half title but played as though they were going through the motions thereafter, can "turn it on" again now that it counts -- or whether Milwaukee, fresh from its down-to-the wire stretch battle for the second half crown, will be able to capitalize on that momentum.
Now for the Oakland-Kansas City series.
The Royals got into the playoffs on a "pass" after falling out of contention early only to be reprieved by the strike and the subsequent splitting of the season -- but now that they're in, they could be very dangerous. The certainly have the talent, as they showed by reaching the World Series a year ago, and under new manager Dick Howser (who replaced Jim Frey in midseason) they are making better use of their speed via a more aggressive game on the basepaths.
George Brett didn't threaten .400 this year, but he did hit .310 -- which looks even better when you realize he had a very slow start. Speedster Willie Wilson was over .300 again, Amos Otis and Willie Aikens had good power stats, and team played very consistently for the last two months.
The pitching, headed by Dennis Leonard and Larry Gura, is also strong -- especially since relief ace Dan Quisenberry found himself (nine saves and a 0.79 ERA in the second half).
Oakland is probably the team most likely to be at least a little bit affected by its playoff appearance, for although the franchise has had its share of recent glory, none of the current players was with the team in the halcyon days.
The youthful 1981 A's do have some advantages of their own, however. For one thing, they're the only first-half winner in either league that didn't coast after ther strike -- and thus the only such team that doesn't have to worry about-re-locating any lost intensity. for another, the fourman starting rotation Mike Norris. Rick langford, Steve McCatty, and Matt Keough is one of the best in the game -- and everyone knows what a major factor pitching becomes in a short series.
Those who think Oakland must stand of fall on its pitching, however, haven't paid much attention to the statistics -- for surprising as it may seem, it was not the Yankees, the Brewers, the Red Sox, or any other well known hitting club that led the league in homers this year, but the A's.
Tony Armas, with 22 homers and 76 RBIs, was the big gun, backed up by Cliff Johnson (17), Dwayne Murphy (15), and a lot of guys who hit 8 or 10 or 12. And "setting the table" for these sluggers was Rickey Henderson, who hit .319, always seemed to be on base, led the league in steals and runs scored, plays the outfield spectacularly, and is considered by many to be Finger's biggest rival of MVP honors.
All this plus the last three games at home (after two in Kansas City) should be enough to overcome any opening jitters and make this also a series tha t could go either way.