25th ANNIVERSARY: The Royals’ Road To The I-70 Series

Remember that great Bobby Cox-managed team, a perennial playoff contender built on a strong pitching staff and a sneaky-good offense?

That description could be used for many of Cox’s Atlanta Braves teams, but of course we’re talking about the 1985 Toronto Blue Jays, a team that won 99 games and the American League East title.

They were also the team standing between the Kansas City Royals and the World Series.

We’ll come back to Blue Jays, but let’s first examine the 1985 Royals, a team that made an unlikely run through the American League West and eventually went on to win it all.

In the late 1970s and ‘80s, the Royals were one of the best teams in baseball. Under manager Whitey Herzog, the team reached the playoffs each year from 1976 through 1978, but they were defeated in the American League Championship Series each of those years by the New York Yankees, creating one of the most unique baseball rivalries of all time. Under new manager Jim Frey, the Royals got their revenge on the Bronx Bombers in 1980, defeating the Yankees in a three-game sweep and reaching their first-ever World Series. However, the dream season came to an end when they lost the series in six games to the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Royals continued to play great baseball, however, and made it to the post-season in 1981 and 1984 under manager Dick Howser, formerly a coach on those rival Yankee teams. Howser made the post-season in 1984 during what was labeled a “rebuilding year,” building around experienced veterans like George Brett and Frank White while also developing new talent like rookie pitchers Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza. They lost once again in the 1984 ALCS, this time to the Detroit Tigers.

But things were different in 1985. Saberhagen quickly developed into an ace-caliber pitcher, winning 20 games and the American League Cy Young Award that year. Other big contributors were Brett, who led the team in batting average (.335), hits (184) and RBIs (112), lightning-quick Willie Wilson and his 43 stolen bases, and power-hitting first baseman Steve Balboni, whose 36 home runs in 1985 is still, amazingly, the most ever hit by a Royals player in a season.

The Royals won the AL West by a slim one-game margin over the California Angels before facing the Blue Jays in the ALCS. The Royals, who had lost five of six AL Championship Series over the previous decade, were underdogs, and early on it seemed like they were haunted by the ghosts of Championship Series past. The Royals lost the first two games, and in Game 3 Saberhagen was injured early, being hit in the leg with a batted ball. Although the Royals went on to win Game 3, they lost Game 4 and were facing a 3-1 deficit with a big question mark next to the team’s best pitcher.

Mark Gubicza was the winning pitcher in Game 6 of the 1985 ALCS.

In Game 5, backed by a home crowd at Royals Stadium, KC pitcher Danny Jackson was strong enough to defeat Blue Jays ace Jimmy Key in a 2-0 decision. Game 6, back in Toronto, saw a matchup between second-year Royals pitcher Mark Gubicza and Doyle Alexander, the wily veteran journeyman pitching for the Blue Jays. Gubicza outpitched Alexander, and George Brett blasted his third home run of the ALCS, giving the Royals the victory and evening the series at 3-3.

Having staved off elimination twice, the Royals rolled out their young ace for Game 7, Bret Saberhagen, even though he was still tender from an injury in Game 3. But in the third inning, Saberhagen was again hit by a batted ball, and was lifted for Charlie Liebrandt.

The Royals played small-ball in game seven, nickel-and-diming six runs from the Blue Jays while only giving up one. Liebrandt, normally a starter, was phenomenal in long relief out of the bullpen.

Kansas City won the game, and the ALCS, and advanced to their second World Series.

Fans were hopeful the 1985 World Series would turn out better than the 1980 showdown with the Phillies. And the Royals were riding high off their ALCS victory, where they battled back from a 3-1 deficit.

As the St. Louis Cardinals would soon find out, the Royals were pretty good at overcoming 3-1 deficits.

Coming up this week, I-70 Baseball will recap the 25th Anniversary of the 1985 World Series, starting with the anniversary of Game 1 tomorrow. Also, check out the “1985 World Series” tab at the top of the page to look back at all of our anniversary coverage.

Matt Kelsey is a Royals writer for I-70 Baseball. He can be reached at mattkelsey@i70baseball.com.

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