If ever a team needed to circle the wagons, call for a gut check, and send out for a quick heart transplant, it's the California Angels.
All those locker room cliches for what a team must do it its moment of dire crisis come to mind in the wake of the Kansas City Royals' belligerent 6-4 win over the Angels and their suspect ace Nolan Ryan tonight.
"If we beat them again tomorrow night," said Royal Pete LaCock flatly, "it's over. They won't stop us."
The American League West standings are not an optical illusion -- California still leads by two games with 10 to play. But the Royals, West champions the last three years, have their hell-bent motor revved up and think the Angels are dead meat.
Everything about this Angel defeat conspired to make the Californians look in the mirror and ask if all those nasty things their detractors say are true.
Are the Angels really a symbol of Southern California's mellow decadence? Are they jinxed by injury? Is it written on some baseball tablet that owner Gene Autry shall never win, no matter how many millions he spends?
Tonight's victor was K.C. mush-baller Larry Gura (12-11), who did little more than pitch seven-plus innings of half-speed batting practice. Brian Downing and rookie Jim Anderson, the No. 9 hitter, blasted him for solo homers. Four other Angels took him to the warning track for outs.
Yet Gura was the boss throughout, in a game the Royals dominated totally.
"Good Lord, we should be able to hit him," said the Angels' exasperated 135-RBI man Don Baylor, who was 0 for four.
Ryan, on the other hand, "threw the hell out of the ball," in California Manager Jim Fregosi's words.
True, Ryan fanned nine, and threw with near-invisble velocity at times. But he also seemed to seek out every one of his career-long patented ways to assist defeat.
Ryan distracted himself by warring with home plate umpire Don Denkinger on a night when raw stuff and the four runs the Angels scored should have been more than enough.
Constantly, Ryan fell behind in the counts in this huge ballpark where even mediocre pitchers see ordinary fast balls translated into countless easy fly balls.
Instead, Ryan had to come in with 2-0, 3-1 and 3-2 pitches with his hit-table semifast ball. And the hungry Royals, who have mashed Angel pitching for 26 runs and 42 hits in winning two of three games in this series, were waiting for him, nailing the Ryan Express for 11 hits.
Nevertheless, with routinely competent defense, Ryan might have won, 4-1. Five Royal runs, even if they were built on rocket hits, were the result of Angel gifts.
Shortstop Anderson, no answer whatsoever to a California year-long void, let a two-out easy grounder skip between his shaking knees to open a three-run fourth-inning floodgate.
That might be expected. "We've never really found a shortstop," said one despondent Angel.
Worse for morale was the way Rod Carew failed to take a half-step to get in front of a ground smash -- then missed it entirely to open the door to two more Royal runs.
"Rod looked awful on that ball," said Baylor, shaking his head. "It just has to be caught. You've got to block it."
Carew, playing with hand injuries that have made him a powerless .250 hitter since the All-Star break, pulled a rib muscle early in tonight's game and was solemn and distraught afterward.
"I've never played with this much pain in this many different places," said Carew. "I've never seen a season anything like this. No one knows what we go through just to go out on the field by this time of year."
Both these teams have been hampered by injuries all year. Neither has any semblance of a pitching staff left.
"We've lost 38 games in which we've scored six or more runs," said one Angel.
However, the Royals, built on gungho, spikes-up play, are better suited to last-gasp brawling than the Angels, who play a clean and stylish game.
The Royals could hardly pick a hero tonight. Darrell Porter, soon to become the second catcher in AL history to have 100 runs, 100 RBI and 100 walks, had three RBI, while Hal MRae had three sharp hits and three runs scored. Young Dan Quisenberry, the Royals, bullpen flavor of the month in their shattered relief corps, got five final outs in a row for a save.
And George Brett, the original dirteater, was in the midst of all three Royals rallies, causing trouble. It was his grounder that Anderson missed, and his also that Carew dodged on what was scored as a hit.
Twice Brett stole an extra base, once stealing second and once advancing when an Angel outfielder threw to the wrong base. And both times that extra base resulted in an extra run.
The Royals could not hide their bared teeth.
"After tomorrow," LaCock said, grinning, "we've got three more games with them, and six with (pathetic) Oakland. They've got three with us, and six with (strong) Texas. The pressure's on 'em."
The Angels sat silent, reproachful and almost resigned. In Tuesday's game, they lost 81-RBI man Willie Mays Aikens for the season with a knee injury. Tonight, Dan Ford (97 RBI) left the game with a rib-muscle pull and went to the hospital. Joe Rudi already is out for the year. Carew is a shell of himself. Larry Gura beats Nolan Ryan, with ease.
"Tomorrow," said Angel Bobby Grich, "is very, very critical. They smell blood and we're wounded. We've got to keep them at bay, then get them in our ballpark next week."
There are, in truth, two badly wounded clubs here. And the one that limbs and snarls its way to victory here Thursday night may well be the lone survivor. In a crisis, the Royals have shown their teeth for years. It is their trademark.The Angels must learn that knack. In a hurry.