Funny game, baseball.

Never was that more evident than tonight. A seemingly broken pitcher gave up three singles in nine innings. A broken-bat hit became a three-run home run that decided the game. The key play of the night might have been made on the game's first batter. And the team that should have been so confident never got a runner past second base.

Final score: Kansas City Royals 4, California Angels 2. And so, after 158 baseball games, the Angels and Royals are tied for first place in the American League West with four games left, one of them here Thursday against each nother.

"This is fun, isn't it?" said Royals Manager Dick Howser, draining a beer. "Boy, this stuff sure tastes better tonight than last night. Funny how that is."

The extra bubbles in in his beer were supplied mainly by Bud Black. One year ago, Black was the ace of the staff, the opening-game pitcher in the playoffs, a 15-game winner. But this year, he has been, as Howser put it, "awful."

"Everyday I get a call from someone asking me where I'm being traded this week," Black said. "I think some people gave up on me. But not Dick."

Howser gave Black the ball tonight and told him this was his chance for redemption. Black (10-15) gave up singles in the second, seventh and eighth innings. He walked one, in the ninth. He allowed no more than one runner in an inning. He struck out five and threw 14 ground-ball outs.

In short, as 26,401 in Royals Stadium watched in delight, he turned this lovely autumn evening into his show with his third career shutout.

"Did anything feel different?" he asked rhetorically. "Yeah, it felt different still being out there in the seventh and eighth inning."

In truth, this game was decided by two plays in the first inning, both involving George Brett. The first came with Brian Downing at bat, leading off the game. Downing is hitting over .400 as a leadoff hitter this season and he hit Black's 2-2 fast ball down the third base line.

It took one quick hop off the artificial turf and seemed headed for the corner. It could have started another long evening for Black, whose ERA in his last six outings was 6.48, his record 1-5.

But Brett stepped to his left, stuck out his glove and knocked the ball down, losing both his glove and the ball. He retrieved the ball and threw Downing out by a step.

"I don't know if it helped Bud or not, but it scared the hell out of me," Brett said. "Usually you don't get a shot like that until the third inning or so. I thought, 'Jeez, this is going to be a long night down here.' "

The Angels never hit the ball that hard again. "When George made that play, you could see Bud's velocity pick up by five miles an hour," said shortstop Buddy Biancalana.

"Yeah, I think so," said catcher Jim Sundberg. "Buddy's problem has been confidence, especially early. That helped. So did the three runs."

The three runs came courtesy of Brett. In the bottom of the first, Lonnie Smith led off with a bloop single, stole second and stayed put as Ron Romanick (14-9) walked Willie Wilson.

Up came Brett. "I threw a change-up," Romanick said. "It was in, just where I wanted it. I broke his bat with it. I did just what I wanted to do. I thought the ball was an out when he hit it."

Brett hit a soft drive toward right field. Juan Beniquez was playing deep and toward center. "I looked up and Juan wasn't there," Romanick said. "I was surprised."

Beniquez ran for the ball while the runners stood transfixed. At the last moment, he lunged headlong at the ball, which dipped under his glove. It skidded toward the wall. Beniquez rolled over and over, and while center fielder Gary Pettis chased the ball down, Brett and the other two runners flew around the bases.

"When I saw the ball hit, I knew I had to dive to try to get it," Beniquez said. "He didn't hit it that good and the only thing I could was go for it because if I had played it in front of me they would have gotten two runs, anyway, because Smith and Wilson are so fast."

Perhaps, but not likely, because both runners had to hold up until the ball dropped for a hit.

"It was a do-or-die play and he didn't do," Brett said.