Start getting excited, all you lovers of the long shot underdog. The Kansas City Royals actually might win the World Series.
Of course, any odds maker in Las Vegas will tell you that's still not the way to bet. Even though the Royals beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 6-1, in Game 5 tonight in Busch Stadium, they still trail their Missouri rivals by three games to two.
However, just a fortnight ago, the Royals trailed the 99-win Toronto Blue Jays by the same margin and, as many have noted, the World Series still has never been played on Canadian soil.
These '85 Royals have a specialty: spoiling other people's fun. Build your plans around the Royals losing and you will be disappointed. Ask the California Angels, who'll spend the winter muttering, "Didn't we have a 7 1/2-game lead in late July? Didn't we still have a lead the last week?"
"It's been a long year, hasn't it," chuckled Kansas City Manager Dick Howser after watching 23-year-old left-hander Danny Jackson pitch a smoky five-hitter and Buddy Biancalana get the game-winning RBI. "We've been here before. I can't explain it. They get behind but they don't get down."
In typical fashion, the Royals won a game that had a certain bizarre tone. A key play came when their Jim Sundberg should have been out at the plate by yards; somehow the old vet slid head first around the sloppy tag of Tom Nieto. But for that slide, the Royals' three-run knockout of Cardinals starter Bob Forsch in the second inning would have been a forgotten no-run rally.
Kansas City also set a World Series record this evening, just the backward kind you might expect: most strikeouts by a winning team (15).
True, the Kansas City offense continues to hunt and peck. Frank White drove in the first run with a ground out. A muffed liner started the uprising that ousted Forsch. And another run scored on a rare Ozzie Smith error.
So what? At least the Royals can score somehow. The Cardinals seem paralyzed. The last team to blow a 3-1 Series lead was Baltimore in '79. The Orioles' attack, also vulnerable to left-handed pitchers, went into a deep-freeze, uptight slump that greatly resembles the sleepwalk now afflicting St. Louis.
The best Royals' hopes lie in the authoritative way their pitchers have both overpowered Cardinals hitters and kept those few who have reached base from stealing.
"We really feel we can shut down their hitting," Jackson said bluntly after walking three, fanning five and facing only one multirunner jam the whole night. Jackson even picked off Willie McGee the only time a Cardinal tried to run all night.
"Too much Danny Jackson," said St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog. "But then we really haven't hit the ball off anybody."
"It's been a good Series," said Howser, who's watched his hurlers drive the Cardinals' team batting average down to .196, "but it has a chance to get a lot better."
"We're going back home and we have our best two pitchers -- Charlie Leibrandt and Bret Saberhagen -- lined up," said Willie Wilson, a goat of the '80 Series who knocked out Cardinals starter Bob Forsch with a two-run second-inning triple to center for a 4-1 lead.
"Before the game, we said we were going to be happy one way or the other," said Wilson, who also robbed Ozzie Smith of a triple with an over-the-head basket catch worthy of Willie Mays. "We just had fun. That's how we always do it . . . What keeps us comin' back is that world championship ring."
After the Cardinals won here Wednesday, the fuzzy-cheeked Saberhagen, speaking with the blissful confidence of a 21-year-old, said, "We (the Royals) got 'em right where we want 'em."
No team is more dangerous than one that wants to win deeply but, in a way, doesn't care if it loses. That's the Royals. They've been disappointed so many times in October -- in the '76, '77, '78 and '84 playoffs, in the '81 division series and in the '80 World Series -- that losing barely fazes 'em.
The devil-may-care Royals are best symbolized by George Brett who, on an inconsequential foul pop in the seventh, tried unsuccessfully to make a sliding catch at the dugout lip, then disappeared into concrete oblivion. The Royals play hard ball, but usually with a laugh on their lips.
"Lee May made the biggest play of the night," said Howser of his husky coach. "He caught George. A helluva play."
Brett got a May finger in the eye and left the game in the ninth with fuzzy vision, but the injury was assumed to be minor. Brett got a hit in the ninth after the scary incident.
"In the past this team was just happy to be where we were," said Brett. "But now, with the pitching staff the way it is, we can beat anybody . . . To come back and . . . defy all the odds would be one of the all-time great seasons."
This game's progression was simple and not terribly exciting. Lonnie Smith and Wilson opened the game with singles off Forsch, who had nothing on the ball but his fingers. A fly out and a Frank White ground out produced a run. The Cardinals came back to tie, 1-1, in the first on back-to-back doubles by Tommy Herr and Jack Clark -- one a flare to right, the other a ringer off the 383-foot sign.
"I didn't really find my stuff until the fourth inning," said Jackson, which must be bad news for the Cardinals, who have only three runs in 16 innings off him.
The Royals' second inning was full to the brim with Cardinals' gaffes and broke open the game. With one out, Tito Landrum misplayed a routine Jim Sundberg liner into a double; Landrum broke back, then fluffed an ankle high catch.
Biancalana grounded a single to right. Sundberg should have been a fairly easy out, but Cesar Cedeno's throw was 10 feet up the line. Nieto overanxiously went out to meet the ball and let Sundberg bellyflop around him.
With two out and two on, Wilson crushed a high fast ball up the gap to deep right-center for a 4-1 lead. Herzog waved to his five-headed bullpen one hitter too late. Cardinals relievers tonight fanned 13 Royals, including a perfect six-for-six performance by Todd Worrell, who tied a Series record for consecutive strikeouts.
The Royals added single runs in the eighth and ninth. The first was embarrassing as Jackson, who'd never batted a ball into fair territory as a pro, broke a record-tying string of five straight Series strikeouts with a grounder behind second base. Ozzie Smith threw the ball past first for an unearned run.
By the ninth, even Pat Sheridan, the deepest Kansas City slumper, was swinging well, cracking an RBI double off the left field wall against Jeff Lahti.
On this night's doings, it might be too easy to conclude that this Series has taken a dramatic Royals shift. After all, the Cardinals, at present, are not hitting, not running, and have only two presentable starting pitchers -- Danny Cox (Game 6), who has a tender elbow, and John Tudor (Game 7), who is the hottest pitcher on earth.
When the much-mocked Biancalana has reached base as often (eight times) as the best Cardinal (McGee), that's a pretty spooky omen.
Brett told the truth after this game when he said, "The road is still long." But things are definitely looking up for Kansas City to draw to a second Royal straight flush.