The California Angels can win a crucial baseball game.

Tonight, with memories of last year's abject late September failures and Monday night's similarly embarrassing defeat fresh, they got a superb pitching performance from Mike Witt and beat the Kansas City Royals, 4-2.

The victory, before a strangely small crowd of 26,273 on another brisk autumn night in Royals Stadium, gave the Angels a one-game lead over the Royals in the American League West with two games left in this series and five left in the season for each team.

"That's the best Witt's thrown in six or seven weeks," said Angels Manager Gene Mauch. "We needed something like that real bad. I'm awful glad we got it."

Witt (14-9) did most of the pitching -- Donnie Moore got the last four outs for his 30th save -- and Bobby Grich, the ex-Oriole, did a good portion of the hitting.

Grich hit a second-inning home run over the center field fence off loser Charlie Leibrandt (17-9) to get the Angels started on a night when they desperately needed a jump start.

"We were uptight coming in," Grich said. "There was no doubt about it. We were quiet in batting practice, quiet in the clubhouse. There was none of the usual chit-chat and let's-go-get-'em kind of talk. It was very businesslike."

The Angels had gone from cocky to careful in 24 hours, their 3-8 September record against the Royals the last two seasons sobering them considerably. But Grich got them going and, with Witt hitting the corners with his fast ball and mixing in an occasional curve, they just kept on going.

"The key for me was the fourth inning, no doubt about it," Witt said. "After my last two starts, just getting through it was a monkey off my back."

Witt had not survived the fourth inning his last two outings. Friday in Cleveland he retired the first nine Indians, then gave up five straight hits. He left after 39 pitches, prompting Mauch to move him up a day in the rotation so he can have four days rest before pitching on the last day of the season.

Tonight, Witt, who pitched a perfect game the final day of 1984 season, retired the first 10 Royals. But with the lead still 1-0, that bugaboo fourth jumped up at him. With one out, Willie Wilson rolled one down the third base line and easily beat it out for a hit. Witt promptly walked George Brett.

"I told myself, 'Not again. Bear down,' " Witt said. "I felt the pressure right there. This is a big series, I've been looking forward to it."

After Brett's walk, Jorge Orta flied deep to center for the second out. Then Witt struck out Frank White with a wicked curve.

Seeing their starter still in the game after four innings, the Angels knocked Leibrandt out in the fifth, although they didn't exactly bury him under a barrage of line drives.

Dick Schofield led off with a soft line-drive single to center. Mauch, who always sacrifices, sacrificed; ordering Gary Pettis to bunt. He did and ended up safe at first when White dropped Leibrandt's throw.

Always sacrifices? Now, with men on first and second, Mauch eschewed the bunt with leadoff hitter Brian Downing up.

"Bunting never crossed my mind," Mauch said. "With Downing up and men on base, he gets a chance to hit."

Downing made the most of his chance, fouling off several pitches before slicing a soft liner into the right field corner. Schofield scored, Pettis stopped at third and it was 2-0. Rod Carew, oft-criticized for not hitting with men on base, blooped a single to left to score Pettis and it was 3-0.

Juan Beniquez followed with a pop to right and Doug DeCinces hit what could have been a double play grounder to Brett at third. But the ball stuck in Brett's glove for a split second and by the time he pulled it out, his only play was to first. The throw there was low, skipping past Steve Balboni. Downing scored to make it 4-0 and that was all for Leibrandt -- shelled from the mound by a two bloops, a slice and two errors.

"Yeah, that's true, but I've gotten out of other innings on three line drives," said Leibrandt, who had an ERA of 1.62 in his last 10 starts before tonight. "We definitely could have gotten out with less damage. But we didn't make the plays and I didn't make the pitches. A four-run cushion was just too much."

Since the Royals have scored 12 runs in five games and 43 in 15 and are last in the league in hitting (.251), four runs is a lot. Witt cruised into the eighth working on a three-hit shutout before the Royals briefly came to life.

He gave up a pinch single to Pat Sheridan and a two-out triple to Wilson on a ball that did not appear to be hit hard enough to get by Beniquez. But it did, scooting to the wall. Brett promptly singled to score Wilson, and Mauch just as promptly sent for Moore, the career journeyman turned stopper since moving from Atlanta to California during the offseason.

Moore got Orta on another deep fly to center -- he hit three balls there tonight -- to end the eighth and struck out two in the ninth, ending the game by making Omar Moreno look helpless on a fast ball.

"We could have gotten out of the fifth, we could have hit the ball a little better I guess, but the bottom line was that Witt was too tough," Royals Manager Dick Howser said.

"This time of year, pitching is magnified. There's no such thing as momentum. It's pitching.

"Last night (Bret) Saberhagen shut them for us. Tonight, Witt did it for them. We'll just come back tomorrow and hope (Bud) Black can get it done."

And, across the hall, Mauch was lighting a cigarette and saying, "Now, it's a five-game season."

But now, the Angels start that season with a lead. And having won a crucial game. Finally