An Iorg-y for the Royals!
by Scott Fendley

During the spring of 1985, most everyone had pegged three teams in the American League East as the most likely to represent the junior circuit in the World Series. The logical favorites were the Detroit Tigers, who had dominated the league in 1984 and made short work of the San Diego Padres in the World Series.

The other teams given a shot to deny another Tigers’ cakewalk were the Toronto Blue Jays, who had the best collection of young talent and a tough pitching staff strengthened by bullpen imports Gary Lavelle and Bill Caudill, and the New York Yankees, who had just acquired Rickey Henderson from Oakland to jump start the offense, added Ed Whitson for pitching depth, and again were thinking of hiring Billy Martin to manage the club. Boston and Baltimore could also be dark-horse candidates for the East, but had too many flaws when compared to the mighty Tigers or upstart Blue Jays.

The American League West was looked at as the weakest division in baseball. Kansas City won the division in 1984 with a paltry 84 wins built around a young pitching staff and closer Dan Quisenberry, and the other teams in the division were too young, too old, or too talent-barren to be of any concern.

Once again, proper prognostication proved elusive to the baseball experts.

The season started with an almost predictable rite of spring, the firing of a Yankees manager. This time, Yogi Berra was the scapegoat for a 6-10 start, and Billy Martin, proving rumor to be fact, assumed the reins of the Yankees. Toronto, Baltimore, and Detroit got off to hot starts while the Yankees were mired in the cellar at the end of April.

Over in the West, the California Angels surprised many of their critics and forged ahead with a 14-7 start. Seven Angels’ regulars were 35 or older, and the staff was getting good quality contributions from young pitchers Mike Witt (already in his fifth season at age 24), Ron Romanick and Stan Cliburn, along with a new closer in Donnie Moore.  Kansas City was lurking two games back. Last in the league in scoring, the Royals also gave up just 57 runs in April (through 19 games).

During May and into the summer, the Blue Jays took control of the East, opening a lead behind the outstanding outfield trio of Lloyd Moseby, George Bell, and Jesse Barfield. Factor in an excellent rotation, and some platoon combinations at third and DH, the Jays seemed not to have any weaknesses (except that they were carrying two Rule V players, Manny Lee and Lou Thornton). The Tigers had little depth to help with slumps by veterans, and found themselves in mid pack with the Red Sox and Orioles, while a torrid May, a humdrum June, and a decent July left the Yankees 7 ½ back going into August.

The West was developing into quite a race. California continued its edge over Kansas City, leading by 2 ½ on July 31. Oakland went 16-10 in June to get itself into the mix, but then cooled a bit in July. The White Sox were still lurking but lacked a consistent offense or pitching depth to make a charge.

Sensing victory, California started to load up on veteran pitchers in an effort to solidify their hold on the west, especially after vets Tommy John and Geoff Zahn were found lacking earlier in the year. They rescued John Candelaria from the bullpen of the moribund Pirates, plucked Don Sutton from Oakland, and then traded for veteran reliever Al Holland to bolster Moore and Cliburn in the pen. Toronto had made one move, swapping Len Matuszek for Al Oliver, and the Yankees made minor deals to grab Joe Niekro and Neil Allen during the year.

Through August, Toronto and California both held their leads, and baseball wags were talking about what a great World Series there would be when the Blue Jays would face either the Cardinals or the Mets. The West was written off, again, as a weaker division with not much chance at all to capture the pennant.

The Yankees, spurred by Henderson, Don Mattingly, Ron Guidry and fine work by Dave Righetti and Brian Fisher in the bullpen, put on a charge, winning 13 of 15 to close within 1½ on September 12. But then the wheels totally fell off as the Bronx Bombers lost eight in a row to fall to 6 ½ back with 15 to play. A quixotic last stand against the Jays in Toronto, where the Yanks closed to three back with four games left (including a rainout makeup that could be played if needed), fell short when the Jays beat Joe Cowley 5-1 behind homers from Ernie Whitt, Moseby, and Willie Upshaw.

Meanwhile, September was a gut-wrenching month in the west. Kansas City won 12 of 13 (including two of three at Anaheim) in early September to forge ahead by 2 ½ on September 15. Coming home to face back markers Seattle and Minnesota, the Royals were confident they would put the race away. But the Royals were swept at home by the M’s (including a disheartening loss when Quisenberry could not hold a 4-2 lead against a mostly punchless offense) while the Angels were winning five of seven, and suddenly the West was in play again. With 13 games left, the Angels were back in front by one game.

The Royals faced a road trip, to Seattle and Minnesota before closing the season at home with a four-game series against the Angels, followed by two against Oakland. But after taking two of three against the M’s, the Royals were swept by the Twins. California did not take full advantage, as they could only take one of three games in series against Chicago and the hapless Cleveland Indians.

So as the sun rose on September 30, the Angels held a one-game lead, and faced a four game series in Kansas City. The rotations had set up good match-ups, with the first game featuring Candelaria against 21-year old Bret Saberhagen. A 1-1 game going into the bottom of the seventh, the Angels were stunned when Jim Sundberg connected for a homer against Candelaria, then in the eighth Willie Wilson led off with a triple, and George Brett’s fly ball gave the Royals a two-run cushion. Saberhagen closed the game out by striking out Reggie Jackson with a runner on first.

California won game two, as two errors and key hits by Brian Downing and Rod Carew chased Charlie Liebrandt in the fifth. Witt needed some late help from Moore, but the Angels triumphed 4-2 to regain the lead.

Romanick was given the task to extend the Angels lead to two games, as he squared off against the weakest member of the Royals rotation, Bud Black. But the Royals jumped out to an early 3-0 lead on a three-run inside-the-park homer by Brett and Black held the Angels to five base runners all night in cruising to a 4-0 win.

So on October 3, 1985, the Royals and Angels faced off. They were tied in the standings with four games left, but both teams sensed that this game was for the division title. The Angels started Sutton and hoped his veteran experience and leadership would prevail against the young lefty Danny Jackson.

The Angels got two first inning hits against Jackson, but could not score. After striking out Lonnie Smith and Wilson, Sutton walked Brett, and then gave up a home run to Frank White. Sutton then gave up solo shots to Steve Balboni and Brett later in the game. Meanwhile, California scratched out 11 hits against Jackson. In the eighth, they had two men on with no one out, but failed to capitalize. Finally, in the ninth, Bobby Grich tripled home Rufino Linares, but Quisenberry was brought in a fanned Juan Beniquez to end the game and preserve a 4-1 Royals win.

After that loss, the Angels limped to Texas, where the Rangers were playing out the string. California was shocked as reliever Dave Schmidt, moved to the rotation in desperation, tossed a shutout, and Steve Buechele and Pete O’Brien delivered key hits in a 6-0 loss. Coupled with a 4-2 win by the Royals over Oakland, that effectively ended the race and gave the Royals the West.

All of the media attention in the ALCS was given to the Blue Jays. Toronto was fourth in offense and first in pitching, and while the Royals were second in the league on the mound, their offense scored just 687 runs all year, 13th in the league and ahead of only the lowly Rangers. Toronto’s rotation matched Kansas City’s, and while the Jays did not have a reliever of the quality of Quisenberry, the Jays had a solid pen top to bottom, and Tom Henke wowed everyone with a stellar late-season performance after being called up from Syracuse. The Royals bench was weak, featuring broken down players like Dane Iorg, and Jorge Orta. To the wags, this was a no brainer.

And after four games, the wags looked to be right. Down 3-1, and having endured uncharacteristic late game losses and blown saves by Quisenberry, the Royals looked done. Jackson then twirled a shutout, 2-0, and the series moved back to Toronto for games six and seven.

Game six featured Doyle Alexander squaring off against Mark Gubicza, and most thought the young Royals hurler would wilt. But it was the veteran Alexander that was knocked out, leaving in the sixth. Knowing the Jays relied heavily on the platoon, Royals manager Dick Howser replaced Gubicza with lefty Bud Black in the sixth, knowing Bobby Cox would switch to his right-handed hitters. He did, but when Quisenberry came in to save the day, Cox had no one left on the bench. The Royals held on and won 5-3 to force a game seven.

Game seven, featuring two of the best pitchers in the AL, Dave Steib and Bret Saberhagen. Again, the youngster wasn’t given much of a chance, pitching a game seven on the road. But again, the Royals defied the conventional wisdom, taking a 2-0 lead. In the fourth, Howser made a bold move in replacing Saberhagen with Liebrandt, daring Cox to change to his right-handed platoon.

Cox took the dare. Liebrandt gave up a run in the fifth, but the Royals added four in the sixth off of Steib and Jim Acker. The Blue Jays had no answer, and the Royals won a most improbable American League pennant. In the World Series, the Royals again faced long odds against a “superior” opponent, but got lucky with a call and saw the vaunted Cardinals completely freak out in game seven, and one of the most non-descript teams ever to win the World Series claimed the prize.

Mattingly won the MVP award, driving in 145 runs, but he wasn’t even the best player on his team. Henderson was. The REAL MVP of the season was Brett. He had an OPS of 1.022, scored 108 and drove in 112 runs for a poor offense, and this with 31 intentional walks on the season. Saberhagen won the AL Cy Young award comfortably over Guidry, while the White Sox’ Ozzie Guillen won the rookie-of-the-year award over Milwaukee’s Ted Higuera.

The 1985 season defied all logic and conventional wisdom, according to the baseball experts. A team that relied on young pitchers and only one true superstar beat the odds time and again to take the crown over teams laden with veterans, and teams laden with more talented young players. In essence, it is a microcosm of why many find baseball the best game in the land.

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