Bret Saberhagen had seen this show before. Crucial situation, late in a baseball season. Ninth inning. Two outs. And standing at the plate one Reginald Martinez Jackson.


"I remember when I was 14 going to Dodger Stadium for the World Series and seeing him strike out against Bob Welch in the ninth," Saberhagen said. "When I looked in and saw him standing there, I remember thinking, 'This is out of a movie or something.' "

In the movies, the kid pitcher strikes the superstar out and his team wins the crucial game. At Royals Stadium Monday, the kid pitcher struck the superstar out and his team, the Kansas City Royals, won the crucial game, 3-1, over Jackson's California Angels.

"The strikeout was no fluke," Jackson said after looking at three fast balls. "The kid can really throw."

More than that, Saberhagen can really pitch. At 21, he is 20-6 with an ERA of 2.79. He is almost certain to win the Cy Young Award -- New York's Ron Guidry is 21-6 but his ERA is 3.36 -- and if there was no Dwight Gooden, Saberhagen would be the talk of baseball.

"You just don't find kids who do all the little things as well as he does," said Manager Gene Mauch of the Angels. "You don't find kids who understand the importance of getting the first strike on a batter, who understand the importance of fielding their position, who understand the importance of location. He's special."

The Royals suspected Saberhagen might be special when they picked him in the 19th round of the draft in June 1982. He was drafted that late because arm trouble prevented him from pitching most of his senior year.

"We knew it would take more than 19th-round money to keep him from going to college," said General Manager John Schuerholz of the Royals. "We decided to gamble on him because we really liked his makeup. He had good stuff, but it was more than that. He knew how to pitch at a very young age."

That is still very much the case. Saberhagen looks like the California teen-ager that he was, even though he has grown a wispy blond mustache. He got married during the offseason and his teammates marvel at his maturity, on and off the mound, especially because he is still one of the youngest players in the major leagues.

"Bret just doesn't let things get to him," said Manager Dick Howser of the Royals. "If he's nervous, it doesn't show. He knows what to do on the mound and he's just gotten better and better. We thought last spring he was going to be good, but never this good this quick."

Saberhagen benefited in 1984 from the Royals' decision to clean house in the wake of the drug scandal in which four members of the 1983 team were convicted of possession. "We had decided to go with kids," Schuerholz said. "So we had an open mind towards Bret making the club, even though he was only 19."

Saberhagen made the team, was 10-11 in the regular season and last October became the youngest pitcher to start a playoff game. He tries to be modest, but he has a streak of cockiness teammates admire.

Tuesday, as he sat in front of his locker, talking about his remarkable season, he made the mistake of saying, "I never thought I'd be in the majors this soon . . . "

Before he could continue, teammate Mike Jones, one locker over, let out a snort. "Hah," he said, "that's a lie if I ever heard one."

Saberhagen laughed. "I do have a lot of confidence," he admitted. "I think I understand how to pitch. When I was facing Reggie the other night, I understood what I was up against, but I also thought I could get him out.

"I was lucky as a kid. I always had good coaches at every level I played at. I was always taught that it doesn't help to lose your temper or get real emotional. Inside, I might be nervous, but you'll never see it. My wife can always tell. Monday, I was so antsy around the house she tried to kick me out at about 1 o'clock because I was driving her crazy. "Once I'm out there, though, I'm usually pretty calm after a couple of pitches."

That is evident. The "special" pitchers, as Mauch calls them, always seem calm on the mound.

"If a team senses a pitcher has a lot of confidence out there, it plays better behind him," George Brett said. "We always think we're going to win with Sabes pitching because Sabes always thinks he's going to win."

Monday, with two out in the ninth and Saberhagen on the verge of moving the Royals back into a first-place tie with the Angels, Brett warned him to avoid Jackson by not walking Doug DeCinces.

"I just didn't want to see Reggie up there," Brett said. "So, Sabes goes ahead and walks him and then blows Reggie away. Shows how much he needs my advice."

Each time out, Saberhagen needs less and less advice. "I shouldn't have walked DeCinces," he said. "But getting the last out against Reggie is something I'll always remember."

The first in what probably will be a long line of memorable moments. Just like in the movies.