Note: April 10, 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first game at Royals/Kauffman Stadium. Each week, I will look at one memorable moment in stadium history, with the top moment revealed on April 10, 2023. Missed an entry? You can find past ones here.
Every Royals fan knows the 1985 team won the World Series. But some might not know how close they came to not even participating in the postseason. After a surprising division title in 1984 and a quick ALCS sweep at the hands of an exceptional Detroit Tigers team, the Royals struggled mightily through the first half of the 1985 season. They were 7.5 games out of first on July 21 and treading water at 46-44. But in the best Royals’ tradition, they turned it on in the last two months of the season. They won eight of nine to close out July, followed that up with a 15-12 August, and began September with a 13-3 run. That put them 2.5 games up on California with three weeks left.
Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. Kansas City lost nine of the next 13 games and came home for the final week of the season now one game behind the Angels, with a four-game showdown against California to start the homestand. Behind some great pitching and highlighted by the game that came in at 41 on this list, the Royals took three of four to move back into first place. But with a one-game lead and three games left, nothing was settled yet. The Royals beat Oakland on Friday night while the Angels lost in Texas, giving KC a share of the title. They just needed one more win, or an Angels loss, to return to the postseason.
But the Royals took the field knowing that California had won in Texas earlier in the day. Things got worse from there. The Athletics had runners in scoring position in the first two innings, then broke through in the fourth against Royals starter Bret Saberhagen, who had been sensational in his previous start against the Angels (a five-hitter with 10 strikeouts, including Reggie Jackson to end the game).
Oakland added to the lead in the fifth. With two outs, Tony Phillips drew a walk and Bruce Bochte homered. The A’s were now ahead 3-0 and the Royals were doing little offensively against Oakland starter Tim Birtsas. The situation became even more grim in the sixth, as Murphy doubled with one out and Canseco singled. Mike Heath hit a sacrifice fly to push the Oakland lead to 4-0.
This was not good. The Royals had not overcome a four-run deficit all season. And now they were down to their last 12 outs. A do-or-die game loomed for the last day of the regular season.
And again the Royals got off the mat. Fittingly, two of their veterans led the way, as Willie Wilson singled with one out in the sixth and George Brett belted his 30th home run of the season, cutting the deficit in half. Birtsas was replaced by Steve Ontiveros, and it looked like the Royals might complete their comeback right then, as Steve Balboni singled with two outs, Jorge Orta doubled, and Jim Sundberg drew a walk. Jay Howell ended the threat by retiring pinch-hitter Pat Sheridan on a grounder, but the Royals still had some life.
Lonnie Smith singled with one out in the seventh, then moved up to second on Wilson’s groundout and took third on a wild pitch. Howell worked around Brett, issuing a walk. Frank White singled to score Smith, and Balboni’s single drove in Brett, tying the score at 4-4.
“I didn’t feel good when it was 4-0, but I felt a lot better when it was 4-2. After we tied it up, I had a gut feeling we would win it right here.”–Royals manager Dick Howser, quoted by the Associated Press, October 6, 1985
Howser was correct, of course, but not right away. The Royals couldn’t take advantage of a leadoff single in the eighth and left two men on in the ninth, but Dan Quisenberry was holding Oakland at bay until the Kansas City offense could come up with another run. Quisenberry pitched three scoreless innings, allowing just two singles, and the Royals came to bat in the bottom of the 10th.
Howell was still on the mound, and Sheridan doubled with one out. Greg Pryor singled, with Sheridan stopping at third, and the top of the order would now have a chance to end the game. Smith came close, hitting a line drive to Rob Picciolo at shortstop. Wilson smacked a single right back up the middle, allowing Sheridan to score easily.
“I was just looking for something to hit and luckily I got a good pitch to hit. Man, this feels nice.”–Wilson, quoted by the Associated Press, October 6, 1985
With 91 wins, the Royals had the lowest total of any division winner. On the other hand, they were the only 1984 division champ to repeat, and they were in the postseason, where anything could happen.
“We’ve been here before. For a lot of us, winning the division is secondary to getting back to the World Series. We were there five years ago and lost to Philadelphia. Maybe this time it can be different.”–White, quoted by the Associated Press, October 6, 1985