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McCaskill Wins the One Angels Had to Have : Rookie Pitches Nine Innings to Halt Team’s Slide, Nudge It Back Into First

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Angel pitcher Kirk McCaskill sat in his hotel room late Saturday night, watching the local sports news and cringing when highlights from that afternoon’s crash-and-burn exercise against the Cleveland Indians flashed on the screen.

It was a recap of the Angels’ mistake by the lake--a blow-by-blow newsreel of how they turned a 5-0 eighth-inning lead into a 7-5 defeat.

“I had a hard time dealing with that one,” said McCaskill, who was nothing more than an innocent bystander. “Man, we could have been one game up on the Royals. I couldn’t believe we lost that game.

“I struggled all night with it.”

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Sunday morning, it was still on McCaskill’s mind. He walked into the Angel clubhouse, half-expecting to encounter a temple of doom--lots of long faces, bleary eyes and sunken shoulders.

Instead, he was caught off-guard, the only time that would happen this day.

“Everybody was up,” McCaskill said, almost incredulously. “There was music on, everyone was so loose. I thought, ‘If these guys aren’t worried about it, why should I?’ ”

McCaskill, a 24-year-old rookie, had reason for some pregame nerves. He was about to make possibly the most important start of his young major league career, an opportunity to right the Angels’ ship before it submerged into Lake Erie.

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If he won, McCaskill had a chance to bring that long lost one-game lead back to the Angels. If he lost, the Angels would have been sent reeling into their pivotal series in Kansas City--limping off a sweep in Cleveland and needing at least three wins against the Royals to reclaim sole possession of first.

It was touch and go for a while, but McCaskill did come through. Knocked down early--surrendering a double, a triple and two runs in the first inning--he held fast the rest of the way, finishing up a 9-3 complete-game victory that represented only the second win for the Angels in the past week.

But that proved to be one more than the Royals could muster, so the Angels, despite all their transgressions here, will go to Kansas City with a one-game lead in the American League West. That is because the Royals lost again to Minnesota Sunday, 6-3.

Once again, there was joy in the Angel clubhouse.

“That man was good, wasn’t he?” Manager Gene Mauch said of McCaskill.

“He’s icing on the cake,” added second baseman Bobby Grich. “McCaskill is someone we didn’t count on having when the season started. You don’t count on a rookie having a big game in a pressure situation.”

No one was enjoying McCaskill’s performance more than locker mate Donnie Moore, the man who replaced Don Sutton after the seventh inning Saturday and turned a 5-0 Angels advantage into a 5-5 tie.

“How come you didn’t come out after seven innings?” Moore joked with McCaskill.

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“I wanted to,” said McCaskill, a grin spread across his face and an ice bag strapped to his right shoulder.

“Hey, you might get a raise next season,” Moore said.

And, across the hallway, Cleveland Manager Pat Corrales was cursing the day McCaskill traded in his hockey skates for a resin bag. Not only did McCaskill make Cleveland history Sunday--handing the Indians their 100th loss of 1985--but he also beat them in Anaheim last Saturday, 12-3.

“I wish the bleep had stuck to hockey,” Corrales grumbled.

There were times this season when McCaskill must have made that same wish. He started the year 0-4, then rallied to win 9 of his next 12 decisions, before plunging into another slump in August--going 1-4 with an ERA of more than 8.00 before his first win against Cleveland.

This one brought McCaskill’s 1985 record over the .500 mark again at 12-11. He allowed seven hits Sunday while striking out 10, his highest total as a big-league pitcher.

“That’s nice,” said McCaskill when informed of his accomplishment. He was more concerned with the timing of this performance--what it followed and what, he hoped, it would preview.

“We could have been devastated after yesterday,” McCaskill said. “If you let it get to you, it could have crashed the whole season. It was good to compete for nine innings, and show we could shrug it off.

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