The Royals Were Flush With Success

The Angels came into town on top, but K.C. got to pop the champagne
October 13, 1985

Dan Quisenberry, whose amusements are ordinarily more cerebral, was busily squirting champagne on his teammates last Saturday night in baseball's time-honored, if idiotic, victory ritual, when suddenly he began shouting at the top of his lungs, "It's not that easy, dammit! It's not that easy!" Quisenberry might well have been referring to the difficulty he was having finding stationary targets for his bubbly salvos, or maybe he was complaining about recalcitrant corks. Who knows? But what he really seemed to be doing, if inadvertently, was summing up his Kansas City Royals' crazy, glorious week, a week that, for all of its successes, hadn't been easy.

Quisenberry, the ace reliever who prefers saves to wins, had just won the game—5-4 over Oakland—that had given the Royals their second straight American League West championship, their sixth in the last 10 years. He had had to go three innings, eight through 10, to do it in the Royals' 161 st game. And it hadn't been easy because K.C. had to come back from four runs behind, something it hadn't been able to do all year. A Willie Wilson single up the middle off Oakland reliever Jay Howell's frantically upraised glove had completed the comeback, scoring Pat Sheridan from third. And when Wilson realized his ricochet had made its way through the infield, he raised his arms high in weary triumph.

The Royals now would take their crack pitching staff and their siege gun, George Brett, to do battle with Toronto for the pennant, and Brett and the chuckers might turn out to be enough. They certainly were last week.

The Royals were one game back of California when the Angels came to Kansas City on Sept. 30 for a showdown four-game series. The Angels had either been in the lead or tied for it for 142 days, and they had marshaled their most effective starters—John Candelaria, Mike Witt, Ron Romanick and the lordly Don Sutton—for this final challenge. Manager Gene Mauch was confident his righthanded lineup could handle the three lefthanders (Charlie Leibrandt, Bud Black and Danny Jackson) Royals manager Dick Howser would be starting. Mauch, hoping for his first trip to the World Series in 24 years of managing, ruefully confessed later that he had chuckled to himself at the thought of the lefties trying to get Brian Downing, Doug DeCinces and Bobby Grich out. "A man," he said, "should know better than to chuckle to himself."

But it was a righthander, Bret Saberhagen, who nailed the Angels in the series opener 3-1, pitching a five-hitter and striking out 10 for his 20th win of the season. Saberhagen became the fifth-youngest pitcher, at 21 years, five months and 19 days, in major league history to win 20 games, passing Babe Ruth on the list. "Was Ruth really a better pitcher than a hitter at 21?" the new wunderkind asked incredulously. Saberhagen was accurately zipping a 93-mile-an-hour fastball on the corners of the plate all night. He walked only two, the last being DeCinces, with two out in the ninth. That miscalculation brought to the plate Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson. But it was two hours and 14 minutes before Oct. 1, so Jackson whiffed on three pitches.

The series opener also gave the Angels the ominous feeling that Brett, who had hit only .210 for the first 28 days of September ("the worst month of my career"), was back on his stick. Leading off the fourth, Brett hit a tremendous home run off the WDAF-TV sign under the waterfall in rightfield. Brett had taken early batting practice, and whatever had been missing from his swing miraculously returned. He was so encouraged that he was out early again the next day helping "coach" the K.C. pitchers, who were taking their first practice swings of the year in case they should get to the Series, which has no DH this year. "Top hand, Dan, top hand," he bellowed at a quizzical Quisenberry.

But Brett had only one measly single that evening as Witt defeated Leibrandt 4-2 in what, superficially at least, appeared to have been a mismatch. Witt had not gotten past the fourth inning in his previous two starts, while Leibrandt had been Pitcher of the Month for September—Mr. September?—when he had won four games, with an 0.91 ERA. The Angels were back on top.

It was an apparent mismatch the other way round on Wednesday, when California's Ron Romanick (14-8) faced Black, the mystery man of the Royals' staff. Black had won 17 games in '84, and he, not the beardless Saberhagen, was to have been the ace in '85. He started well enough, 5-3 through May 26, but then he lost seven in a row and 12 of 16 decisions. His ERA for his last five starts had been 6.58. But Howser had stayed with him. "If you can handle it, I can," he told the pitcher. Black handled the Angels with dispatch, shutting them out 4-0 and tying the two teams at the top for the eighth time in 14 days. Three of the K.C. runs were scored on another Brett homer, this one about 200 feet shorter than the last.

In the first inning, with Lonnie Smith and Wilson on base, Brett hit a soft but sinking liner near the foul line in right. The Angels' Juan Beniquez gave fervent chase, diving for the ball and missing it completely. On the Royals' rubbery surface, one must pay for such misplaced aggressiveness. The ball bounced swiftly to the fence as Brett chased Smith and Wilson home, sliding under the relay throw. "I've seen enough of those [inside-the-park homers] in Kansas City," said Brett, "to know you've got a chance when the ball gets by somebody."

Mauch, who had been uncommonly cheerful the day before, was beginning to wonder by now if his hitters had any chance against these rejuvenated K.C. starters. "I know they're good," he said, shaking his head sadly, "but the celestial All-Stars couldn't do this to us." And he identified these luminaries as Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Mordecai (Three Finger) Brown, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Cy Young. Instead, it was Danny Jackson who next faced the Angels, and he beat them 4-1, with a little help from Quisenberry in the ninth and Wilson in the eighth. Wilson took a triple away from DeCinces with two runners on when he flagged down his long line drive on the warning track in deepest centerfield—his momentum after the catch carried him halfway up the wall. Sutton, in quest of his 296th career win, was the loser in his last start of the year. All the Royals' runs were scored on homers—a two-run shot by White and solos by Steve Balboni and, of course, Brett. This was one of Brett's more conventional blasts, a skyscraper that easily cleared the 410-foot centerfield fence.

The A's came to town Friday, and Brett's next homer stayed inside the fences as rookie leftfielder Jose Canseco pulled a Beniquez. Brett conceded that, though the fans might find his insiders more suspenseful, he personally prefers "the other kind." Brett would finish his sensational week with nine hits in 20 at bats, five homers of all sorts and 11 RBIs. By winning Friday, the Royals clinched at least a tie for the division title, because Texas had beaten the Angels 6-0. But there was no celebrating in the K.C. clubhouse yet. The Angels would meet the Rangers the next afternoon, while the A's and the Royals waited until nightfall. "If the Angels lose," quipped Saberhagen, "we come to the park drunk."

But the Angels won, and now the Royals faced the sobering thought that if they didn't win at least one of their final two games, a one-game playoff with California might decide the championship. That prospect looked real enough when the A's moved to a 4-0 lead by the sixth inning. But Brett—who else?—hit a two-run homer in the sixth, and run-scoring singles by White and Balboni tied it in the seventh. And when Wilson knocked in the winner, his jubilant teammates clambered out of the dugout to engulf him. "We're not a dominating team." said Howser after this squeaker. "We don't punish people." They don't do it the easy way, in other words. But they do get it done.

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONBrett arrived home safely under Bob Boone's tag for his initial inside-the-park homer last week. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONThe Royals would have been up against it if Wilson hadn't made this catch on Thursday. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERDarrell Miller took out Buddy Biancalana, but it was California that was upended. PHOTOJ.B. FORBESIt was a vintage week for Brett, who hit .450, had five home runs and drove in 11 runs.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)