The undercurrents of a pennant race are sometimes inscrutable, or even perverse. For instance, the Baltimore Orioles' fate may rest largely in the shaky hands of the California Angels.
The most important games remaining on the Oriole schedule do not involve the Birds. They are the showdowns between California and Kansas City for the Western crown.
Baltimore is rooting vehemently for the staggering Californians to hold their evaporating lead.
The Birds recognize a pigeon when they see one. The Angels are as wrecked and debilitated a foe as any team could hope to face in the playoffs.
The Angels have been in the fetal position for two months, preparing for their crash landing. Losing altitude steadily and sickeningly, California has been 28-32 since the All-Star Game.
Tonight the Angels stumbled and groped their way to what may prove to be their most vital victory of '79 -- a wild-an'-whoolly 11-6 escape from this city of the Royals.
Even this win, which pushed K.C. three games behind with nine to play, was enough to scare the Angels, since their pitchers were tatooed for 14 hits.
On Wednesday night here, the Angels' Don Baylor sat honing his bat, like a dutiful craftsman who goes back to basic textures, such as the familiar grain of the wood, when everything else is bleak and confusing.
Carefully, the Groove, who has 138 RBI, stacked one sanded bat against five others. They collapsed and fell to the floor-like the Angels who have surrounded Baylor all season.
In the California locker room, the clattering bats sounded like an avalanche. The Angels' only remaining friend is time, the final days of this season which are running out. They mark each day off the calendar with nervous relish.
"I'm sure that No. 4 is rooting for us," Baylor said ruefully, meaning his ex-manager, Earl Weaver. "The Orioles have matched up very well against us (winning nine of 12 this season), and they have fits with the Royals.
"Weaver would go crazy if he managed this team (the Angels). Our pitching has been either injured or awful."
The team's ERA of 4.43 ranks 21st in the majors.
"I think we've lost 38 games when we've scored six or more runs. Weaver probably hasn't lost that many in the 1970s."
Without doubt, the Angels, who were a .300-hitting wrecking crew in the spring, are lost in the wilderness in September. It's only partly their fault.
Joe Rudi (61 RBI) is out for the season, with a strained Achilles' tendon. Willie (Ack Ack) Aikens (81 RBI) is finished for the year, with a wrecked knee.
Rod Carew, grittily playing with hand and rib injuries, has been a feeble .260-hitting leadoff man since midseason. "I'm the man with all the adjustments," Carew says bitterly. "But none of it does any good when it's your hands that hurt.
"You can finesse other kinds of injuries, but you've still got to hold the bat with your hands. I've tried everything I've learned in my career, and more of it has worked. I've never felt like this in my life."
Carew, still hitting .314 for the year, was acquired at a high price to provide stability and leadership, as well as hits. "It's hard to lead others," Carew says, "when you're struggling to lead yourself."
"Rod a leader?" Baylor says, quietly. "I wouldn't say so. He's had problems, so he's been pretty quiet."
Other Angel regulars have played until they are wobbly. Dan ("Call me Mr. Clutch") Ford, who has 97 RBI, was taken to the hospital Wednesday with a pulled rib muscle. Bobby Grich, having his greatest year (28 homers, 95 RBI) has contracted a case of weary bat and had one RBI in three weeks until his opposite-field fly found the first row of bleachers tonight for a two-run homer.
Catcher Brian Downing, a career .246 hitter whose .328 average is one of the talks of baseball, has worked 139 games and is almost punchy. "I can't wait to become a free agent (this winter)," he says. "I just got to play some other position -- any other position.'
Downing behind the plate is an open invitation to steal, as 133 Angel foes have done.The Royals went 10 for 11 against him in two nights here.
However, it is hardly the Angels' bats, or even their gloves (125 errors), which have them bailing water and picking up the likes of Ralph Garr to DH.
The California pitching staff is cracked worse than the San Andreas fault. Perhaps after this season, Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana will no longer be vastly oversold as one of baseball's great pitching duos.
Ryan, despite the Angels' vast hitting support, is having his customary mediocre season. He is 16-13, including a 3-7 mark with a 6.54 ERA since the All-Star break.
The official Angel line is that Ryan is still Mr. Wonderful, the star above reproach. What else can they say? They need him desparately. Nolie's feelings are easily hurt.
Nevertheless, he may be the worst imaginable "ace" to have under pressure, a fair-weather hurler whose career 55-64 on the road says something of his response to adversity.
"Nolan will always pitch too 'fine,' " said one resigned Angel after Ryan had been beaten by Larry Gura here Wednesday. "That's just his way. He'll never change."
In other words, Ryan, fixated on no-hitters, strikeouts and his vast reputation, insists on throwing unhittable pitches to perfect unhittable spots. Because of his talent, Ryan ought to save an enormous margin for error. However, because of his temperament, he has imposed on himself the most restrictive and unachievable precise margin or error. So he loses as often as he wins.
Tanana, the onetime playboy who is prone to undiagnosable injuries, has won only six games this year. After mission three months with a shoulder malady, Tanana has returned to the mound, thanks to the manipulations of a Las Vegas therapist who reversed an atrophying process in his left biceps.
Perhaps the California mound should come equipped with a couch. Who can fathom Dave Laroche's ERA going from 2.82 to 5.62 in one year? What of towering Chris Knapp, who was 14-8 in '78, despite mysteriously walking out on the team for 15 days in midseason, but is now 3-5 with a 6.07 ERA?
Steady Dave Frost (15-9, 226 innings) has been the Angels' real mainstay, while old Jim Barr (10-12) and young Don Aase (9-10) have regularly taken their turns and their lumps.
Being an Angel pitcher is no holiday. When John Montague, 32, was acquired from tailender Seattle Aug. 29, he responded to the news of being on a first-place team by crying-from sadness. "Now, I'm happy," Montague says, "I guess."
One thing is sure. The Baltimore Orioles have placed a huge wager of emotion on the historically luckless Angels.