For the second straight year, the New York Yankees broke hearts all over the Midwest, as they scored three runs in the ninth to win Game Five of the ALCS, 5-3, on Sunday night at Royals Stadium and advance to the World Series.
Things looked so promising for the Royals in the early going. Yankees starter Ron Guidry had handcuffed Kansas City in Game Two, but Hal McRae singled with one out in the first, then scored on George Brett’s triple. In yet another example of the bone-deep animosity between these teams, a fight erupted when Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles kicked at Brett after his popup slide into third carried him into Nettles.
Brett immediately popped up and threw a haymaker at Nettles. The two men tumbled to the ground as the benches cleared. In an amazing display of restraint, the umpires let both players stay in the game. Once order was restored, Al Cowens hit a high bouncer to Nettles. Brett scored on the groundout and the Royals had a 2-0 lead. In one inning, they had scored as many as they had against Guidry in the previous matchup.
The teams traded runs in the third inning. In the top half, Royals starter Paul Splittorff got the first two batters out, but Mickey Rivers singled and stole second. After a walk to Willie Randolph, Thurman Munson singled to cut the Royals’ lead to 2-1.
But McRae started the bottom of the inning with a double, then took third on Brett’s groundout. Cowens singled and Kansas City was back in front by two runs. That ended Guidry’s outing, and Mike Torrez struck out the next two batters to end the inning.
Torrez would proceed to pitch 5 ⅓ scoreless innings, holding the deficit at two runs until the Yankees could rally. Splittorff worked through seven innings, allowing five hits and two walks while striking out two. Manager Whitey Herzog sent the lefty out for the eighth, but pulled him from the game after Randolph led off with a single. Doug Bird struck out Munson, but Lou Piniella followed with a single, and Reggie Jackson delivered a pinch-hit single to pull the Yankees to within a run at 3-2. Steve Mingori took over for Bird and got the last two outs, the final one coming on a forceout after a sensational diving stop by second baseman Frank White, and the Royals were now just three outs away from their first World Series.
Torrez finally weaked a bit in the bottom of the eighth, walking Amos Otis and Pete LaCock with two outs, but Sparky Lyle ended the threat with a strikeout of Cookie Rojas.
Herzog then turned to Dennis Leonard to pitch the ninth inning. Although he was normally a starter, Leonard had held the Yankees to four hits in a complete game in Game Three. But Paul Blair led off with a single and Roy White walked. Larry Gura took over for Leonard for a lefty-lefty matchup with Rivers, and also with the expectation that Rivers would bunt (Gura was an excellent fielder), but the strategy failed as Rivers singled to tie the game. Now Mark Littell, who had been victimized by Chris Chambliss’ walkoff home run in the Royals’ Game Five loss in 1976, took over on the mound. Randolph hit a sacrifice fly to give New York the lead. Munson grounded out, with Rivers moving to third. Piniella hit a grounder to Brett at third, who threw wildly to first. Rivers scored on the error, and the Yankees had a 5-3 lead. Littell got Jackson on a groundout, and the Royals now were down to their last three outs of the season.
Despite pitching 5 ⅓ relief innings just the day before, Lyle returned to the mound for the ninth. With one out, White singled, bringing the tying run to the plate. Freddie Patek, on his 33rd birthday, came to the plate. He had been hitting well all series, with seven hits in 17 at-bats. But on an 0-2 pitch, he pulled a hard grounder down the third base line, but Nettles nabbed it and started a double play that ended the game and the season.
Understandably, the Royals were devastated. They had won 102 games, the most in the major leagues. They had led the ALCS, two games to one. They had been three outs away from the World Series. And for the second year in a row, it was all over in a sudden, shocking moment. Patek sat in the dugout, head bowed, for at least 15 minutes. In the locker room, players stared at the carpet or off into space. Some of them, including Splittorff, openly wept.
“(Herzog) decided to go with the percentages,” Splittorff said of the manager’s decision to take him out in the eighth. “I had faced Munson three times and I’d done something different with him every time. We thought maybe I was running out of tricks.”
“What a joke,” White said. “You play hard for six months and eight innings and it all goes up in smoke in one fatal inning.”
“It’s a bigger letdown than last year,” Brett said. “We trailed most of the time last year. It was more of a short dream turned nightmare. This year we were ahead most of the time. We had so much momentum, so much excitement. It was a fantastic feeling turned to nightmare.”
I don’t know what to say about it,” Herzog said. “I felt we had it all the way. I just wish it would have rained after seven innings. If we get Rivers out, we’re gonna win the ball game, but we couldn’t get that damn out in the ninth when we needed it. It’s gonna be a long winter.”
Box score and play-by-play:
YouTube if you want to watch it for some reason: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4yTZLkghyA
Today’s birthday: Freddie Patek (1944)