The names of the actors might change but for the Kansas City Royals and the California Angels, the script remains the same.
Tonight, on an autumn evening, the names were Jim Sundberg and Bret Saberhagen as the Royals tied the Angels for first place in the American League West with a crisp 3-1 victory before 34,200 in Royals Stadium.
"Felt like the seventh game of the World Series to me," Kansas City Manager Dick Howser said. "I don't see how baseball gets much better than that. And I don't see how pitching can be much better than Saberhagen."
Saberhagen (20-6) provided the pizzazz and the pop, striking out 10 Angels en route to a five-hit masterpiece as he became the fifth-youngest 20-game winner in baseball history at 21 years, five months. The sixth-youngest is a guy named George Herman Ruth.
Sundberg, a veteran catcher who never before has been in a real pennant race, supplied the power, crushing a John Candelaria mistake over the center field fence in the seventh inning to break a 1-1 tie created when Doug DeCinces and George Brett traded home runs.
"I was kind of surprised by how far the ball went," said Sundberg, who missed four weeks recently because of a bruised rib cage. "I certainly didn't expect to hit it out to center. I just wanted to hit the ball hard."
There weren't many balls hit hard on this night, which began with the temperature at 49 degrees and ended with it closer to 40. Even so, the bundled-up crowd surprised the Royals with the noise they made.
"That's the loudest I can remember a crowd here," said Brett, whose home run was a career-high 26th. "I guess the fans understood this was really a must game for us."
This is the final week of the baseball season and this night at least provided a great sense of de'ja vu for both teams. One year ago, these two teams turned for the finish together. Then, the Angels dropped five of seven in September, and the division, to the Royals.
After tonight, this year's September series stands 3-1, Kansas City.
Neither team came in here looking like a candidate for October immortality. The Royals had just dropped three in a row in Minnesota, and the Angels had lost two of three in Cleveland. Yet, the Angels, strutted in, talking cool and claiming confidence. "This is where we want to be," Reggie Jackson said during batting practice.
Howser said the same thing, but took several pregame steps to try to shake his team from its lethargy. He ordered extra batting practice for several players, including Sundberg and Brett, who came into the game batting .223 this month. Then, just before the game, Howser held a brief team meeting.
"No big deal, no ranting and raving and nothing negative," Howser said. "I just want to remind them how far we've come to be here. Minnesota is behind us, can't do us a bit of good. We go from here."
They did exactly that. From the start, it was clear this would be a pitcher's night. Candelaria, 31, has been reborn since leaving Pittsburgh to find himself a pennant race. Saberhagen has been superb all season.
Each pitcher made one mistake the first six innings: Saberhagen got a fast ball out over the plate to DeCinces in the second inning and the former Baltimore Oriole deposited it halfway up the grassy embankment behind the left field fence. Candelaria (6-3) answered in the fourth when he hung a slider to Brett, who practically knocked the ball into the right field waterfall.
"I was a little nervous starting out," said Saberhagen, whose wispy blond mustache makes him look all of 14. "But after the mistake to DeCinces, I settled down."
To put it mildly. "I said to Don Sutton on the bench, 'Hey, this kid's too young to know so much about pitching,' " California Manager Gene Mauch said. "He really has great control."
So does Candelaria. But in the seventh, with the score still 1-1, Candelaria tried to get ahead of Sundberg with a fast ball.
"He hit it far," Candelaria said with a disgusted drag on a cigarette. "Of course, I supplied a lot of the power. Not a very good pitch, was it?"
It was a good pitch for Sundberg. At 34, in his 12th year in the majors, he is reveling in this race after a career spent in Texas and post-1982 Milwaukee. "This is just so exciting for me," he said with child-like eagerness. "I've waited a long time to be in a situation like this."
Saberhagen hasn't, but he pitched with the cool of a man who has been through it all many times over. Given the lead, he never looked back. He retired the Angels in order in the eighth, got another run in the bottom of the inning courtesy of a Willie Wilson triple and a Brett sacrifice fly (RBI No. 103).
He got the first two men in the ninth before walking DeCinces with two out. "I told him to go after DeCinces because I didn't want to see Reggie get up," Brett said. "So, he walks DeCinces, then goes after Reggie. The kid doesn't need advice."
Apparently, not. With Jackson the tying run and October a little more than two hours away, Saberhagen threw Mr. October three fast balls, all of them away. Each drew a screech from the delighted crowd. Jackson, zero for 14 and eight strike outs in his career against Saberhagen, never took his bat off his shoulder and walked to the dugout as Sundberg and Saberhagen leaped into each other's arms.
"The (kid) can really throw," said Jackson, now three for his last 30. "Maybe I hit a home run and tie it, but against this kid, that's a pie-in-the-sky. He's a damn good pitcher."
And so, it is now October and there are six games left. "It's a six-round fight now," Brett said.