Thursday, October 9, 2014

A Look Back: 1985, Part Two.

Continued from yesterday...

The Royals would soon need him [Brett] even more. In the ALCS, they faced off against the Toronto Blue Jays, who won 99 games en route to their first-ever playoff appearance. The Blue Jays won game 1, 6-1, and in game 2, after the Royals scored the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning, the Jays rallied for two runs off closer Dan Quisenberry in the bottom of the inning to win, 6-5. At that point, the Royals had lost ten playoff games in a row, dating back to the 1980 World Series. Game 3 was a must win.

Brett responded with the greatest single-game performance in Royals history.

In the first inning, Brett homered to give the Royals a 1-0 lead.

In the third inning, Brett made an astounding defensive play. With Damaso Garcia on third base and one out, Lloyd Moseby sliced the ball down the third base line. Brett somehow snared the ball, then found the perfect angle to home plate, throwing around Garcia to nail him trying to score.

In the fourth inning, Brett led off with a double, then scored on two flyouts.

The Blue Jays scored five runs in the top of the fifth inning, and led 5-3 in the bottom of the sixth. After Wilson singled, Brett homered to tie the game.

In the bullpen, backup catcher Jamie Quirk piped up. “We’re in the driver’s seat now,” he said. “George has one more at-bat.” In the bottom of the eighth, Brett led off with a single. With two outs, Steve Balboni singed him home. The Royals won, 6-5.

Four at-bats, four hits, two home runs, one run-saving defensive play, in a must-win playoff game that his team won by a single run. George Brett, ladies and gentlemen. George Brett.

In Game 4, the Royals held a 1-0 lead until the ninth inning, but the Blue Jays scored three in the ninth off of Leibrandt and Dan Quisenberry, giving Toronto a 3-1 series lead. Now, they were all must-win games, and the Royals needed some new heroes.

In Game 5, that hero was Danny Jackson, who stepped up with a complete-game shutout. But the Royals still needed to win Games 6 and 7, both in Toronto. This time, their hero was manager Dick Howser.

The Royals had a problem: Quisenberry, the best closer in the league for the previous five years, was a submarine pitcher who was vulnerable to left-handed hitters. The Blue Jays platooned at several positions, and so they always had left-handed hitters at their disposal. Al Oliver, in particular, tortured Quisenberry – Oliver hit the walk-off single in Game 1 and the go-ahead two-run double in the ninth inning of Game 4.

The Blue Jays’ manager – some nobody named Bobby Cox – aggressively pinch-hit to obtain the platoon advantage whenever it presented itself, but within his aggression lay his weakness, and Howser pounced on it. Howser tabbed Gubicza to start Game 6, a curious decision given that Gubicza had not started in the series, and the Blue Jays had hit right-handed pitching better than left-handers all season. But it got Cox to put all his left-handed hitters in the lineup, and the trap was set.

The Royals took a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the sixth – the go-ahead run came on a home run from Brett, naturally. After Gubicza allowed a single and a walk, Howser called on left-hander Buddy Black – his Game 2 starter – to pitch to Oliver. The gambit worked; Cox pinch-hit for Oliver with right-handed hitter Cliff Johnson. Johnson singled to score a run, but Black got out of the inning without further damage. Left-handed hitters Rance Mulliniks and Ernie Whitt would be subbed out for right-handed hitters Garth Iorg and Cecil Fielder later in the game.

With the Blue Jays’ bench depleted, Quisenberry could pitch to right-handed hitters with impunity. With two outs in the ninth and the winning run at the plate, Quisenberry relieved Black to pitch to Iorg, who struck out to end the game.

Saberhagen started Game 7, and in the first inning he took a comebacker off his hand, which forced him out of the game after just three innings. Howser took advantage, bringing in Leibrandt, who had started Games 1 and 4. For the second straight game, Howser used a left-handed starter as a relief weapon, and lured Cox into pulling his left-handed bats. Once again, the ambush worked: Mulliniks and Oliver were pulled in favor of Iorg and Cliff Johnson in the fifth inning. After five innings, the Jays trailed 2-1, and Cox had already used up his bullets.

It would hardly matter, not after Jim Sundberg batted with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the seventh, and got a flyball to right field up into the wind, leading to a bases-clearing triple that gave Kansas City a 6-1 lead. In the ninth, Quisenberry came in to quell a modest Blue Jays rally, and got a pair of groundouts to send the Royals to the World Series.

Bobby Cox will go into the Hall of Fame one day [Editor's note: Done!]. Dick Howser, who would tragically die of brain cancer less than two years after his greatest triumph, will not. But for one series, the latter got the better of the former.

If the Royals were underdogs in the ALCS, they were so lightly regarded in the World Series that they might as well have been given a #16 seed. The St. Louis Cardinals won 101 games in 1985. They led the NL in runs scored, and were second in fewest runs allowed. They stole 314 bases, the most by any NL team in the last 100 years. They were unbeatable. It didn’t help that the series would be played without the designated hitter, meaning Hal McRae, the greatest DH in history to that point, was reduced to being a pinch-hitter for the duration of the series. (The rule would be changed after the season to its current rule, which allows the DH to be used in AL parks.)

Even without rookie sensation Vince Coleman, who was swallowed up by a runaway tarp and missed the series – no, seriously – the Cardinals certainly looked unbeatable early on. In Game 1, their ace John Tudor (who had a remarkable 1.93 ERA during the regular season) outpitched Danny Jackson to win, 3-1. In Game 2, Charlie Leibrandt was magnificent, holding a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning. After Willie McGee doubled to lead off the ninth, Leibrandt retired the next two batters and was one out away from the shutout.

And then disaster struck. Leibrandt lost it, and Howser, perhaps still worried about Quisenberry’s vulnerabilities, stood idly by. Jack Clark singled home a run. Tito Landrum doubled to put men on second and third. Cesar Cedeno was intentionally walked. Terry Pendleton then cleared the bases with a double, the Cardinals led 4-2, and Quisenberry finally came in to the sounds of shocked silence.

The series moved to St. Louis with the Cardinals holding a commanding lead. No team had ever won a World Series after losing the first two games at home. It was time for some new heroes to emerge.

Bret Saberhagen was up to the task in Game 3, throwing a complete game and allowing just one run. Frank White – the first second baseman since Jackie Robinson to bat cleanup in the World Series - homered, and the Royals won 6-1. But Tudor threw a shutout in Game 4, and for the second straight series, the Royals needed to win three elimination games in a row.

Just as he did in the ALCS against Toronto, Danny Jackson was asked to save the Royals’ season, and once again Jackson was brilliant. The Royals won Game 5, 6-1, and headed home still breathing.

In Game 6, Leibrandt was brilliant again, taking a perfect game into the sixth inning. But Danny Cox pitched in and out of trouble all evening, and the game was scoreless into the eighth. With two outs and two on in the top of the eighth, Cardinals’ manager Whitey Herzog pinch-hit for Cox with Brian Harper, and Harper delivered with a single to give St. Louis a 1-0 lead. Leibrandt and the Royals were headed for more heartbreak. The score held up going into the bottom of the ninth. The Cardinals had not lost a game they led after eight innings all season long.

This is where we pause for Cardinals fans to light this program on fire.

You may have heard about what happened next. Jorge Orta pinch-hit to lead off the bottom of the ninth against Todd Worrell, the Cardinals’ flame-throwing closer who was so inexperienced that he would win Rookie of the Year honors the following season. Orta bounced a groundball to the right side. First baseman Jack Clark came off the bag, fielded the ball, and threw over to Worrell, who stepped on the bag a split second before Orta.

Don Denkinger, the first-base umpire, extended the safe sign. He has not been welcome in St. Louis since.

We will not pretend that Denkinger’s mistake had no impact on the outcome of the series. We will not be so presumptuous as to assume that the Royals would have won Game 6 even if Orta had correctly been called out. But neither will we concede that Denkinger’s mistake singlehandedly flipped the series to Kansas City.

Don Denkinger did not cause Clark and catcher Darrell Porter to get crossed up when the next batter, Steve Balboni, hit a foul pop-up that dropped between them. Denkinger did not then surrender a single to Balboni. After a failed sacrifice bunt led to the first out, Denkinger did not allow the passed ball that allowed the runners to move up to second and third. He did not intentionally walk Hal McRae to load the bases. And he most certainly did not allow Dane Iorg, who 27 years later should still never have to pay for a meal in Kansas City, to bloop a single to right field, plating the tying and winning runs and triggering bedlam.

Years later, Whitey Herzog would say that the only time in his career that he felt he didn’t have his team ready to play was Game 7 of the 1985 World Series. They took the field like dead men walking, and it showed. Tudor, who was brilliant in Games 1 and 4, had nothing; he was knocked out of the game in the third inning, having allowed five runs. In the dugout, Tudor punched a fan – the electric kind, not the kind having a blast in the stands – and lacerated his hand.

The Royals iced the game with six runs in the fifth inning. Joaquin Andujar, the Cardinals’ right-hander who was mercurial in the best of times, began arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire – by the sheerest of coincidence, it was Don Denkinger – and was ejected from the game before he could commit assault-and-battery. When Whitey Herzog came out to protest, he told Denkinger, “We wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t missed the bleeping call last night,” only he didn’t say “bleeping”. Herzog was thrown out as well.

The Royals led, 11-0, and the coronation began even before Bret Saberhagen finished off the shutout, even before the final flyball settled into right fielder Darryl Motley’s glove, even before the Kansas City Royals, in their 17th season and on their seventh playoff try, were crowned world champions.

Six times, the Royals took the field for a playoff game knowing that a loss meant their season was over. Six times, they won. As Brett would say years later, “That was a team that got pushed right up against the wall, and somehow, the wall moved.”

In the history of baseball, no team had ever won six elimination games in the playoffs before. And despite the expansion of the playoffs to a three-round format, no team has done it since.

The point of playing a championship season is to crown a champion, and style points are not awarded. The 1985 Royals were champions, and their unlikely road to the top only makes that championship sweeter. They weren’t the best team in Royals history. They were simply the greatest.


Michael S. said...

Very nice! Loved it!

If you count the Wild Card game, we now have a 7 game winning streak in elimination games.

Suck on that, Oakland!

Daniel Wesley said...

I don't see how Denkinger's call really affected the outcome of Game 6, considering his runner was thrown out at third. Maybe, just maybe, I'll grant you that the Cardinals pitched to Balboni differently with the runner on first, but considering he was a threat to tie the game by himself anyway, I think I that's a big stretch.

Bottom line, the Cardinals lost the '85 World Series all by themselves.

BobDD said...

Well Daniel, maybe you had to be there. The first out was mistakenly called safe in the inning where the wheels came off for the Cards. It is true that the Cardinals badly mishandled the situation though and it is on them more than on Denkinger, but I agree with Rany that it's an obvious acknowledgement that the bad call affected the Cards.

Additionally interesting to me is that the Denkinger flareup is what led to umpires looking to each other for help ever since. They rarely did that up to that time. To me, Denkinger's bigger mistake was to refuse to check with his associates, or for them to signal him that they had input, thereby insisting on keeping the bad call.

But again - still - the Cards let that call rattle them right out of the game, which then rattled them right out of the next (deciding) game.

I was only watching the game on TV, but even through that squarish 19 inch black and white screen you could FEEL the change in the red team. It's hard to play well while in the fetal position. That inning remains the go-to bad example of how not to react to negative circumstances; it should be shown at every spring training as a cautionary tale.

Matt S said...

Bob, along with Moises Alou's reaction on the Bartman play.

John said...

Another point about Game 6. As I recall, the umps blew a call earlier in that same game that cost the Royals at least one run. Add that in with the fact that the Cardinals just laid down after Denkinger missed that call, and that they hit well under .200 as a team in the series and were incredibly lucky to have scored as many runs as they did, and they don't really have a beef.

KHAZAD said...

I get really tired of the Denkinger thing. If there had been replay in 1985, the Royals would have scored in the 4th, and the Cardinals would never have had the lead at all. Then the Royals would have won it in the ninth even with Orta called out.

Even if both calls go against the Royals, and even if the Cards get the lead runner on the bunt (they threw out the plodding Orta for the only out of the inning. Without Orta on base, they either get Dundberg at first, or try to throw out the speedy Concepcion at second and probably fail) the worst case scenario is that the Royals tie the game with two outs and have a runner on third with Wilson up.

Since the one run that the Cardinals were trying to make hold up was the only time they even seriously threatened to score in the last 26 innings of the series, I can really think of no scenario where the Cardinals win. It is just 29 years of pouting and whining for no reason.