Reflecting on the 1985 World Series

In their lone World Series championship season, the 1985 Kansas City Royals were the undisputed underdog. During a decade when made-for-TV movies were mainstays of network TV, their win over the St. Louis Cardinals was worthy of the CBS Sunday Movie treatment.

The 1985 Royals were a far cry to this year’s team that has a 2-0 lead in the 2015 World Series. The 1985 Royals were unpolished, had many holes at key positions and lacked pitching depth at the beginning of the year. Through it all the Royals persevered. They were seven and a half games out of first place at the All-Star break. They had to rally from a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays (a much better, balanced ball club). Last, but not least, they were tasked with knocking off the toughest team in the National League for the title.

Before the 1985 season, they were swept by the Detroit Tigers in the 1984 ALCS (initially viewed by the front office as a rebuilding year), the Royals were the third best team in the AL West. Core players such as Frank White, Hal McRae, Dan Quisenberry and George Brett, veterans of better Royals team in the 70’s and early 80’s, were in their thirties. General manager John Schuerholz traded for Lonnie Smith from St. Louis and veteran catcher Jim Sundberg. Smith, hitting well below his high standard, was trying to regain his form following his drug rehabilitation.

This looked like a team that would finish eight games back in the top heavy AL West. There were lots of new faces in the starting rotation, especially that of 21 year old Bret Saberhagen, a spot starter the previous season. Gone was long time Royal Larry Gura. Joining the bullpen was lefty Mike Jones, Mike LaCoss and Steve Farr to give support to Joe Beckwith and Quisenberry.

The real problem with Kansas City was their lineup. Ranking near the bottom in team average, on base percentage and runs, it put a lot of pressure on manager Dick Howser and his pitching strategy. The weakest spot in the lineup was shortstop. With U.L. Washington a mere memory, Onix Concepcion and Buddy Biancalana battled for that position. Both spent the season hovering at or below the Mendoza line before Biancalana won out the starting spot (with an anemic .188 season batting average) in September.

Their World Series opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals were the vision of former Royals manager Whitey Herzog. Herzog, a huge fan of AstroTurf, wanted his team built for speed on a fast playing surface. With a lineup balanced with quality hitters, solid defense and some power mixed in, no team in the National League could beat them.

The speed from the top two hitters, Vince Coleman and Willie McGee was too much. Leading the league in stolen bases with 314 (Coleman with 110, McGee with 56), number three hitter Tom Herr drove in 110 RBI’s, while hitting only eight home runs. Adding power hitter Jack Clark and trade deadline acquisitions in Cesar Cedeno and Tito Landrum, this was a deep lineup that could score from any spot.

Herzog also had plenty of arms in his pitching staff. John Tudor had a career year, winning 21 games, along with Joaquin Andujar (who was instrumental in the 1982 World Series) and Danny Cox were the rotation’s best. The Cardinals ran a bullpen by committee, anchored in the post season by AAA starter Todd Worrell. With his overpowering fastball along with Jeff Lahti, Ken Dayley and Ricky Horton, it seemed the Cardinals would have too many options.

It should have been a Cardinals World Series win. Having outlasted a Los Angeles Dodger team with no bullpen (save for a burnt out Tom Niedenfuer) and an ailing Pedro Guerrero, the Cardinals were hands down the more complete and better ball club. But it was that NLCS win over the Dodgers where cracks appeared in the Cardinals roster.

With speed being the keystone and, more importantly scoring early runs with that speed at the top of the lineup, losing Vince Coleman to a freak injury prior to Game 4 messed up the natural order. If Coleman did not get run over by the automated tarp system at Busch Stadium, the lineup may not have suffered in the World Series. St. Louis hit .185 in the World Series, further damaged by Willie McGee, the number two hitter put in the lead off spot, hitting .259 and Tom Herr, with a weak .154 average and no runs batted in.

There was no doubt, bullpen depth was not going to be an issue with Herzog. With that in mind, the long regular season and six game NLCS wore down the two aces, Andujar and Tudor. Tudor, the veteran lefty, threw 275 innings in the regular season, maxing out his previous season high by over thirty innings. Add on 12.2 IP in the NLCS and another 18 in the World Series (including the Game 7 start he lost), Tudor was so exhausted, he did not throw bullpen sessions between his postseason starts.

Andujar embodied the phrase, “wearing your emotions on your sleeves”. Frustrated with a poor second half of the regular season (going 6-8 with a 4.74 ERA and a 1.428 WHIP), his Game 2 outing in Los Angeles brought out the emotional side of Joaquin. In the third inning, leading 1-0, the Dodgers Steve Sax singled, then reached third on a poor pick off throw by Andujar. The Dodgers opened the floodgates off the expressive Cardinals hurler with an Orel Hershiser single, a Ken Landreaux double and a Bill Madlock single to build a 3-1 Los Angeles lead. The Dodgers put six earned runs in 4.1 IP on Andujar. From that point on he was a ticking time bomb, that did not go off until Game 7 of the World Series.

Before getting to that Game 7 of the World Series, it’s critical to note that the Royals won the World Series on strong starting pitching, clutch play from the most unlikely of sources and other players going off script.  Against the Cardinals it all came together at the right moment.

The Royals hit better than the Cardinals, batting .288 as a team. Yet, the Royals did well despite losing one of their top run producers Hal McRae. With the designated hitter rule alternating year to year (as opposed to now, depending on which league the home team plays) McRae would only be able to come off the bench as a pinch hitter. Dick Howser made it clear, McRae, long removed from playing defense, was in no condition to be a starting outfielder. McRae went 0-1 with a walk in the series and proved to be a non-factor.

Rising to the occasion, given the fact that only one player on the Royals roster hit above .300 during the regular season (George Brett, .335 AVG), many players hit above that mark in the World Series. Brett, Willie Wilson and Lonnie Smith ignited the offense, as the first three hitters in the lineup accounted for 11 of the 28 runs scored. Jim Sundberg, regarded as a clutch hitter, before the world of advanced analytics could prove so, hit .250 but walked 6 times and scored 6 runs, including the winning run in Game 6.

To rub salt into the Cardinals wounds, despite holding Royals leading home run hitter Steve Balboni to no home runs and only 3 runs batted in, he still hit .320 with no extra base hits. Even weak hitting Buddy Biancalana hit .278 and had an on base percentage of .435. The Royals bats all came together at the right time.

Starting pitching was the Royals strongest suit. Howser, with little faith in his bullpen to tame the Cardinals hitters, only used six pitchers (four of which were starters), used Joe Beckwith in only one appearance, as Quisenberry lived up to the closer role. That strategy looked to cost the Royals as Charlie Leibrandt ran out of gas in the Game 2 loss, blowing a 2-0 lead in the ninth. Leibrandt was solid in his other start, giving up only one run. Danny Jackson surrendered only three runs in his two starts. No one had a better run than Bret Saberhagen, who pitched two complete games and only allowed one run. He took advantage of a desperate Cardinals team in Game 7 for a shutout victory.

Now, it’s time to mention Game 7. For the Cardinals, they felt like they should have been back in St. Louis celebrating. Game 6 featured a blown call by first base umpire, Don Denkinger, which gave the Royals enough to rally for the win. The match up was set with the top performing pitchers from both squads, John Tudor and Bret Saberhagen.

On paper, it seemed like another ideal match up for a great game. It never was. The fatigued John Tudor, relying so much on his pitches’ movement, was peppered by Royals hitters. Darryl Motley’s two run home run in the second inning, brought the Kansas City crowd to life. It opened the floodgates as the Royals drove in three in the third inning knocking out Tudor (he was taken out after 2.1 IP, but was on the hook for all three runs in the inning).

The Cardinals, down 5-0 at that point, were pressing. Overly aggressive hitters made Saberhagen’s outing even more dominating. The Royals offense kept adding runs, further assisted by Joaquin Andujar’s heated exchange with home plate umpire Don Denkinger in the fifth in which Andujar was ejected.

By the end it was an 11-0 victory. The Royals won their first title. Bret Saberhagen took the World Series MVP. Despite numerous playoff failures, Royals veterans Frank White, Hal McRae, Dan Quisenberry and George Brett won their title. For Dick Howser, this would his last full season as a manager. Howser would later be diagnosed with a brain tumor that took his life during the 1987 season.

The least likely of champions were able to take on baseball’s Goliath and come out on top. They delivered in big moments, relying on young dominating arms to win a title. The 1985 Royals proved that timely hitting and strong starting pitching reign supreme in postseason baseball.

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