1978 Baltimore Orioles: Another 90-Win Season For Earl

Baltimore was as consistent as they came during the managerial tenure of the great Earl Weaver from 1968 through 1982. They won at least 90 games 11 different times. They won at a 90-win pace after Weaver took the reins midway through ’68, and they did so again in the strike-torn year of 1981. The 1978 Baltimore Orioles weren’t able to make a serious run at the AL East title, given the stacked nature of the division. But they added to Weaver’s 90-win legacy.

Jim Palmer continued to be the rotation anchor. The three-time Cy Young Award winner and future Hall of Famer won 21 games, posted a 2.46 ERA, logged 296 innings, and finished third in the Cy Young voting.

Behind Palmer were three up-and-comers. Dennis Martinez, 24-years-old, made 38 starts, won 16 games, and finished with a 3.52 ERA. Mike Flanagan,  just a year away from winning a Cy Young of his own,  went to the post 40 times and won 19 games. And finesse lefty Scott McGregor worked over 230 innings and won 15 games.

An offseason trade had sent a reliable starter, Rudy May, to the MontreL Expos (today’s Washington Nationals). In return, Baltimore strengthened their bullpen with Don Stanhouse. He became the closer and saved 24 games with a 2.89 ERA. But depth behind Stanhouse was a significant problem. Tippy Martinez had an off-year.

Even in an era when starters were expected to work deep and finish games, this was still too thin of a pen. Oriole pitching as a whole was still good, but it wasn’t great, ranking fifth in the 14-team American League.

The offense was a significant problem. There was a lack of production at catcher, second base, and two outfield spots. Even at DH, veteran Lee May’s 25 home runs came at the price of an on-base percentage that was only .286 and a slugging percentage that was .414.

Baltimore had three significant contributors with the bats. Ken Singleton posted a stat line of .409 OBP/.460 slugging and popped 20 homers. Doug DeCinces’ stat line was .346/.526, as he homered 26 times and drove in 80 runs. And 22-year-old Eddie Murray, fresh off winning Rookie of the Year in 1977, had a line of .356/.480, to go with 27 homers and 95 RBIs. But that wasn’t enough to stop the Orioles from clocking in ninth in the AL in runs scored.

In 1977, Baltimore had fought with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees to the bitter end in the AL East before the latter prevailed. The Birds already knew the Sox and Yanks were going to be tough rivals—and indeed, they would be the best two teams in baseball in 1978.

What no one was expecting was that the Milwaukee Brewers—an AL East team under the alignment of the era—were also going to jump into the mix. Baltimore was the first team to get a taste of that. They went to old County Stadium in Milwaukee to open the season, got hammered for 40 runs in three games and were swept.

The Orioles did bounce back and sweep the Brewers three straight on the return trip to Baltimore, but the early part of the season was a struggle. They lost three of four to both New York and Boston and dropped two of three to eventual AL West champ Kansas City. By Memorial Day, the Orioles were 21-24, in fifth place and staring at a 10-game deficit.

Here’s a good place to remind younger readers that prior to 1994 there was only an East and West division in each league. Even more important, only the first-place teams advanced to the playoffs. So, while this kind of start would be disturbing in our own era, it amounted to a full-scale fire alarm in the world of 1978.

Weaver’s teams often started slow and then heated up along the with the weather. That proved to be the case again this year. The Birds ripped off 19 wins in 22 games. Most of it was against the AL West, but it included series wins over the Yankees and Brewers. Baltimore nudged within 6 ½ games. But then they went to Boston and to lowly Toronto and promptly dropped seven straight. A series win at home over the Red Sox seemed to stabilize the ship, but the Orioles ended the first half much the same way it had begun—their pitching got hammered in Kansas City, giving up 24 runs in a three-game sweep.

Baltimore was 45-40 at the All-Star break and in fourth place. They were 13 games behind frontrunning Boston.

The Birds were hot out of the break and won 11 of 15, again cleaning up on the weaker AL West and slicing the deficit to 7 ½ games. They went to Milwaukee in early August and won a series. After losing a series in the Bronx, they welcomed the Yankees to old Memorial Stadium for a three-game series. Two teams trying to put some heat on the Red Sox met for a weekend set starting on August 11.

It was a rain-soaked weekend in Baltimore, and the Orioles lost a five-inning game on Friday night, 2-1. They bounced back on Saturday night, getting home runs from Lee May and Pat Kelly to grab the early lead, and won 6-4. More rain came on Sunday. McGregor allowed just three hits and was leading 3-0 after six innings when play was called, and the game made official. Baltimore had the series win.

Even so, the Orioles couldn’t make consistent headway, even as the Red Sox started to slip. On Labor Day, Baltimore’s record had improved to a strong 76-61, but they were still in fourth place, and still ten games out. They hosted the Red Sox for a three-game set starting on Labor Day afternoon.

It was a big sports day in Charm City. The NFL season was opening, and the then-Baltimore Colts were on Monday Night Football against the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. The Colts, with starting quarterback Bert Jones on the shelf, got hammered. But the Orioles gave the city something to cheer about. Murray, along with outfielder Larry Harlow had three hits apiece. McGregor pitched into the ninth inning and Baltimore won 5-3.

On Tuesday, Palmer tossed a five-hitter, Lee May homered, and the Orioles grabbed a 4-1 win. They lost the finale—Martinez pitched brilliantly, but Boston’s Luis Tiant was even better, in a 2-0 decision. Baltimore was playing well, but they looked more like a spoiler than a contender at this point.

After winning two straight in Toronto, the Birds went up to Fenway for a two-games set. Trailing 4-1 in the eighth inning of Monday night’s opener, Baltimore rallied with three runs. But the bullpen depth issue bit them—reliever Joe Kerrigan gave up a home run in a 5-4 loss. Martinez responded by dealing a six-hitter in Tuesday’s 3-2 win. The Orioles were within six games, but there were three teams, including the Brewers, ahead of them.

Losing two straight in Milwaukee removed any narrow path Baltimore might have had. New York and Boston would fight beyond the last day, with the Yankees prevailing in a historic one-game playoff. The Brewers would finish third.

But Baltimore played some good baseball to close it out. They won nine of their final 15 games and hit the 90-win threshold on the nose. Their final record was still fifth-best in the American League overall, and eighth-best in all of baseball. In other words, they were a playoff team by our modern standards.

One year later, Baltimore would be a playoff team by the standards they actually lived in. In 1979, the Orioles took off and ran away from the rest of the AL East, and eventually reached Game 7 of the World Series before coming up short. In 1980, they won 100 games. In 1982, they contended to the last day of the season and had the second-best record in baseball. Weaver stepped down in 1982, but the core players remained and got their final triumph—a World Series title in 1983.