25th ANNIVERSARY: What A Relief

Twenty-five years. It’s a quarter of a century. It’s also been that long since the Kansas City Royals were in the playoffs. Nobody at the time knew it. They were too busy celebrating the first of what people believed would be many World Series titles. What nobody saw coming were 25 years of failure, losing and despair. Major League Baseball even expanded the number of playoff teams in 1994, but the Royals couldn’t take advantage and continued ending their season with game number one hundred and sixty two. The real shame of the matter is that the entire generation of Kansas Citians born after the 1970’s hasn’t had a single thing, other than a strike shortened 1994 and flukey 2003 to cheer for. However, it’s still important as Royals fans and as Kansas Citians to hold our heads high, be proud of our fandom and to celebrate history.

I could certainly rattle off a whole number of things which have changed in 25 years to bring perspective to the length of time it’s been since 1985. Instead I’d like to focus on how the game has changed. Specifically, how the fantastic seven game series we all remember, likely should have ended prior to Game 7. No, I’m not talking Denkinger. I’m talking relief pitchers.

Specifically, I’m talking about Game 2. The Royals had lost their home-field advantage by losing Game 1 at Kauffman by a score of 3-1. Winning Game 2 before hitting the road to St. Louis was seen as paramount to their goal of becoming World Champions.

Charlie Leibrandt

Charlie Leibrandt was taking the hill as the starter. He was 28 and was having the best year he would ever have. He had a 2.69 ERA and came in 5th in the Cy Young voting. The Royals needed him to do what he had done all year – put the Royals in a position to take this “must win” game. Leibrandt gave the team and the fans exactly that. He was absolutely dealing that night. A single by Willie Wilson in the bottom of the fourth inning, followed up by a pair of doubles by George Brett and Frank White put the Royals ahead 2-0. Usually a two-run lead seems precarious, but not on that night. The score remained the same through eight innings. Leibrandt had allowed only two hits and struck out six.

In baseball circa 2010, with a two run lead going into the ninth inning, most fans, announcers and managers are thinking “time to bring in the closer”. In fact, it wasn’t too different in 1985. Managers brought in their closers late in games when the score was close. It wasn’t as common as it is today, but it also wasn’t exactly a ground breaking bullpen move.

Dick Howser, the Royals Manager had a decision to make after the 8th inning. Leibrandt was dealing, but could he do it for three more outs? Dan Quisenberry, the AL leader in saves and owner of a 2.37 ERA had only walked 16 batters in 129 innings. However, Quisenberry had appeared in four of the seven games in the American League Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays, and he hadn’t fared well. He’d pitched 4 innings and given up 3 earned runs. He led all relievers in innings during the regular season and pitched four times in seven games during the ALCS. It’s possible he had been over-worked, but maybe Howser relied too much on a small sample size. He possibly put too much stock in a couple of rough outings against the Blue Jays.

While the use of relievers in 1985 was common late in games, it was still commonplace to see pitchers throw complete games. Leibrandt had eight complete games in 1985, so he wasn’t a stranger to that 9th inning. However he wasn’t very effective in them. In the nine games during the 1985 regular season in which he pitched, his ERA in the 9th inning was 6.14. It’s only 7.1 innings, so again we run into the sample size issue, but he wasn’t really effective in the eighth inning either, posting a 4.40 ERA and an opponent’s batting average of .333 in 14.1 innings pitched.

It was one of those gut-instinct moments for Dick Howser. Does he run out the pitcher who is just rolling along, but tends to run out of gas in the last innings? Does he go to the closer, who dominated during the regular season but was having some troubles in the post season? It wasn’t a particularly unique moment; those are the kinds of decisions that managers are faced with all the time. However, in this case, the wrong decision could mean losing a championship.

Dan Quisenberry might have been a better option

Howser ultimately decided to go with Leibrandt and hope he could get the last three outs with a two run lead. The first batter, Willie McGee doubled to left field. Dick Howser might have questioned himself at that very moment. Ozzie Smith then grounded out and Tommy Herr flied out. All the Royals needed to take a two game lead in the World Series was a single out. The decision to leave Leibrandt in had worked pretty well up to that point. Then, a single by Jack Clark scored McGee and a double by Tito Landrum brought back the unease.

The tying run was now on third base, 90 feet away from resetting the score. Leibrandt walked Cesar Cedeno and the bases were loaded. Again, Dick Howser had to choose to either bring in his closer or let Leibrandt finish the game. He elected to let Leibrandt pitch to Terry Pendleton with the go-ahead run on second base. Pendleton hit a base clearing double to left field, the Cardinals had suddenly taken a two run lead, and the best relief pitcher in Royals history was sitting on the bench. The Cardinals took care of business in the bottom of the ninth, and suddenly, the Royals were down two games to none and had lost both games at home.

After the game Dick Howser said “I thought Charlie was in complete command.” It was a gut call for him at that moment, and it ended up being the wrong one. With the Cardinals in control of the series, lots of heat fell on the manager for his decision. In the moment, when all you need are a couple of outs, managers can tend to ignore the percentages and put their faith in their feel of the game. It’s something that’s as old as baseball and is what can make the game so great and so frustrating. Royals fans were seriously concerned about the World Series, but without that bad decision by Howser, we don’t get that fantastic (for Royals fans) Game 7. So, thanks Dick, for making that call. In the end it actually worked out better. Could you imagine the 1985 World Series without Bret Saberhagan taking the mound for Game 7?

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