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Here Come the Royals : As Usual, Defending Champions Aren’t Ahead in the Race, but It’s Only June, Much Too Early for the Famous K.C. Kick

Times Staff Writer

Arriving in Anaheim tonight with a 29-29 record, the World Series champion Kansas City Royals are not behind schedule.

This is a team that usually doesn’t think the season starts until after the All-Star break. The Royals seldom make a move until midseason. They have been baseball’s most successful team during the last decade because they have been the best finisher.

“That’s been true the last couple of years, but as a manager I can’t rely on it and I hope the players aren’t,” Dick Howser said by phone Wednesday. “I don’t think you can turn it on and off. Who knows about injuries? Who knows how other teams are going to play in the second half?”

This much is known: Excluding the 1981 strike season, the Royals have won the title in the American League West six times since 1976. In four of those six years, they were anywhere from third to fifth at the All-Star break. Last season, 44-42 at the break and 7 1/2 games behind the Angels, the Royals went 47-29 the rest of the way, beating the Angels by a game. In 1984, 39-43 and 4 1/2 games behind the Angels at the break, the Royals won the title with a 45-35 performance in the second half.

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In that decade since ’76, the Royals had a 396-339 first-half record entering the ’86 season, a .539 percentage. The second-half record was 414-309, a .573 percentage. The record over the 17 years of the franchise: .508 in the first half and .531 in the second half.

Howser said that he had no explanation except that a team that emphasizes pitching can have its rhythm and continuity disrupted by the rainouts and off days of April and May.

The players also can offer no explanation but have learned not to panic amid the slow starts.

In fact, pitcher Dennis Leonard said it might be just the opposite, that a fast start would be cause to say, “Oh-oh, are we in trouble or what?”

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“Every team goes through a period where they don’t play real well, but if you’re going to do it, it’s better to do it at the beginning of the year than at the end,” Leonard recently told the Topeka Capital Journal.

Said George Brett: “To us, a fast start is not in our repertoire. We make things hard on ourselves. Maybe it helps us deal with the pressure later on.”

Added pitcher Danny Jackson: “It would be nice to start off fast, but it’s just the way it is. A lot of fans worry about that. They ask, ‘What’s wrong with you? You guys aren’t playing very well.’ Well, we never play well at this time of year. We’re right on schedule.”

Howser, however, still can’t adjust to the pattern and isn’t too excited about his team’s performance.

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“We struggled to win it last year, and it looks like we’ll have to struggle to win it this year,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll walk away with it.

“Fortunately, I don’t think anyone else in the division is capable of walking away with it either.

“I’m surprised that some of the teams haven’t played better, but the (Oakland) A’s and Angels, who figured to be two of the best, have had their pitching decimated by injury.

“Fortunately, we’re in good shape that way. We haven’t really had any bad arms.”

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The Royals displayed only good arms in their stunning playoff and World Series victories last season over the Toronto Blue Jays and the St. Louis Cardinals. At the time, Howser said it was the best young pitching staff in baseball. He still believes it.

“It’s there,” he said. “We just have to do it. I still feel our pitching is the best in the league. I’m more concerned with our offense.”

The Royals were 11th in the league in runs scored and team batting average last season, their .252 surpassing only the Angels’ .251.

A pitching staff that had the league’s second best earned-run average kept the Royals alive, leading to the belief that management would re-stock the offense by trading some of the pitching. There were reported discussions involving San Francisco Giants outfielder Chili Davis and Montreal Expos outfielder Andre Dawson, but the negotiations went nowhere.

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The only changes were at shortstop, where former New York Mets farm player Argenis Salazar replaced cult hero Buddy Biancalana, and in right field, where Pat Sheridan was released and free agent Rudy Law was signed.

The Royals also decided this Tuesday to send Daryl Motley to Omaha. Motley, who had platooned with Sheridan last season and ultimately hit a home run in Game 7 of the World Series to start the rout of John Tudor and Joaquin Andujar, was hitting .196.

General Manager John Schuerholz said that every time the Royals considered improving the offense, the potential gain seemed outweighed by a weakening of the pitching staff.

“We won last year with pitching and team speed,” he said. “Why take a chance on trying to create a new formula? I don’t say that in a complacent or smug fashion, but we believe that our pitching can be as good as or better than last year. If you play half your games in a stadium the size of ours and have a choice between potentially dominating pitching and offense, we’ll take the pitching.”

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The Royals came out of Wednesday night’s 12-2 loss to Seattle with a .250 team batting average that ranked 12th in the 14-team league and with a 3.62 earned-run average that ranked second. They have scored two runs or less in 26 of 58 games.

Left fielder Lonnie Smith is batting .210, first baseman Steve Balboni .222, catcher Jim Sundberg .223 and designated hitter Hal McRae .233. Brett, with 8 home runs, 32 runs batted in and a .280 batting average, has walked a startling 48 times as pitchers chose to face the batters behind him.

The offensive inconsistency can be seen in Bret Saberhagen’s 3-6 record. Saberhagen has already lost as many games as he did last year, when he won 20 and the Cy Young Award. He has yet to win consecutive starts. He has obviously not pitched as well as he did last year.

But the Royals have also scored two runs or less in 5 of Saberhagen’s 12 starts, preventing a respectable ERA of 3.48 from translating into a better record than 3-6.

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The Royals, of course, believe that Saberhagen and Jackson, 2-3 with a 4.38 ERA, will ultimately regain their October form and win consistently despite the offense.

The Royals also believe that their pitching is even deeper than last year’s because of Leonard’s dramatic return from his 1983 leg injury; the arrival of young Scott Bankhead and the decision to move left-hander Bud Black to the bullpen, where he has joined Dan Quisenberry and Steve Farr in providing relief by committee.

“We haven’t yet pitched as well as we did last year, but it hasn’t been far off,” Howser said. “We generally get beat because we haven’t scored enough runs. It’s the same old problem, but we have to live with it. I mean, in some ways I feel fortunate. We’re hitting only .248 or so, but the other teams are hitting about the same against us. We’re about where we should be. I can’t complain.”

Particularly, since the Royals’ season isn’t due to start for another month.

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