The 1980 Baltimore Orioles: When 100 Wins Wasn’t Enough

The 1980 Baltimore Orioles were coming off a season where they got within three innings of winning the World Series. They were even better in 1980, but it didn’t translate into a championship. It didn’t even add up to a postseason appearance. The Orioles won 100 games, but were outlasted in the AL East by the 103-win New York Yankees in the pre-1994 era when only first-place teams advanced to the playoffs.

Start reading today. 

Baltimore was built on strong pitching under manager Earl Weaver and 1980 was no different. Even though Mike Flangan, the 1979 AL Cy Young Award winner slipped to a 4.12 ERA and 16-13 record, there was someone else ready to step up—Steve Stone won 25 games, posted a 3.23 ERA in 250 innings of work and kept the Cy Young in Baltimore.

The balanced rotation was filled out by lefty Scott McGregor, who used his pinpoint control to win 20 games with a 3.32 ERA. Veteran Jim Palmer won 16 games with a 3.98 ERA. Overall, these core four starting pitchers combined to start 143 games. The ERAs ranged from Stone’s 3.23 to Flanagan’s 4.12 and all four worked over 220 innings. That’s consistency.

Weaver lost closer Don Stanhouse to free agency, but Tim Stoddard stepped up with 26 saves (a good number for an era when complete games were in much greater abundance) and Sammy Stewart was a workhorse, with 118 innings and a respectable 3.56 ERA. Dennis Martinez made twelve spot starts, otherwise worked out of the pen and posted a 3.97 ERA.

The staff overall posted the third-best ERA in the American League. And the offense, which ranked fifth in runs scored, wasn’t far behind.

Eddie Murray, the future Hall of Fame first baseman and just 24-years-old in 1980 was the focal point of the attack. Murray batted .300, hit 32 home runs, finished with 116 RBI, scored 100 runs and delivered some stellar defensive work at first base. He finished sixth in the American League MVP voting.

Ken Singleton in right field was another good all-around player. Singleton batted .304, popped 24 home runs and drove in 104 runs. Murray and Singleton were the big guns of the attack and after that Weaver relied on steady depth.

Al Bumbry was a solid leadoff man, batting .318. Rick Dempsey and Rich Dauer were good defensive players at catcher and second base respectively and each finished with on-base percentages over .330, making them at least respectable with the bat.

The left side of the infield was more of a problem, with third baseman Doug DeCinces having an off-year at the plate and shortstop Mark Belanger having long been known as a defensive whiz, but an offensive liability. The difference was that this year, the normally good-hitting Kiko Garcia, who Belanger split time with at short, collapsed to a .199 batting average.

Weaver got good production from his left field platoon of young Gary Roenicke and veteran John Lowenstein. The latter in particular, who finished with a .403 OBP. Terry Crowley was a part-time DH and finished with a .364 OBP/.476 slugging percentage. Pat Kelly posted a .363 OBP in his own part-time role of DH and the outfield. With the manager using these moving parts in the lineup, built around Murray and Singleton, the Orioles produced runs.

Baltimore started slowly, although that wasn’t unusual in the Weaver era, when they often surged after the All-Star break. The Orioles lost four of five early games with the Yankees and also dropped three of four in Milwaukee, where the Brewers were then an AL East team and had finished second to Baltimore in 1979. By Memorial Day, the Orioles were still sub-.500 at 19-22, in fifth place and six games back of New York.

They lost two of three at home to Milwaukee in early June and didn’t clear .500 until June 17, in the midst of a 13-3 stretch that helped push Baltimore to 42-36 by the All-Star break. They were now up to fourth place, but nine games back of the Yankees.

A middling 6-5 start to the second half gave no signs of an impending surge and the Orioles were ten games back on July 21. Then they took off, winning 14 of 17 games, cutting the Yankee lead to 5 ½ games and going to New York for a  three-game weekend series on August 8.

Murray answered the bell in the opener with four hits, including a home run. Palmer worked into the eighth inning and beat 1978 Cy Young winner Ron Guidry 5-2. Saturday’s game was tied 2-2 in the eighth when Singelton delivered an RBI triple and Crowley tacked on a single for some insurance. Stone got the complete-game win.

In Sunday’s finale, Flanagan struggled and the Orioles trailed 5-4 in the ninth. Utility infielder Lenn Sakata led off with a triple. When May and Dauer failed to pick him up, it looked like a great opportunity might disappear and Baltimore would miss it’s chance for a knockout blow in the series. Dempsey hit a clutch single to tie the game and aftrer Singleton walked, a Murray double gave the Orioles a 6-5 win and cut the lead in the AL East to 2 ½ games.

New York nudged back out to 3 ½ games and a rare five-game series over five days between the two rivals was at hand in old Memorial Stadium.

Stone did what an ace is supposed to do and set the tone with a complete-game two-hitter in Thursday’s 6-1 win. Flanagan again struggled on Friday, giving up four early runs. Stewart pitched four-plus innings of shutout relief, but the early deficit was too much in a 4-3 loss. On Saturday, the Baltimore attack could only muster five hits off veteran Gaylord Perry. The 4-1 defeat left the Orioles in danger of letting their recent progress slip away.

The offense was no better on Sunday, but McGregor was clutch, with a  complete game six-hitter and a 1-0 win. In Monday evening’s final game, the Oriole offense unloaded for three runs apiece in the fourth and fifth innings. Bumbry finished with three hits, two RBIs and was in the middle of both rallies. New York rallied to cut the lead to 6-5 in the eighth, but Stoddard closed the door. The Birds were still within 2 ½ games and there was still a month and a half to finish the job.

Baltimore knocked the lead to a meager half-game and for five days between August 22-26, it stayed on that. But that was the high-water mark. The point at which the Oriole surge crested came on Labor Day weekend against an Oakland A’s team that was mediocre, but on the rise and under the leadership of an old enemy—Billy Martin, just two years earlier the Yankee manager.

Flanagan’s rough year continued in the Thursday opener against Oakland as he took a 7-1 loss. Baltimore then dug themselves a 6-2 hole on Friday before a three-run home run by reserve outfielder Bennie Ayala was the key to a rally for an 8-7 win. But Palmer took a hard-luck 3-2 loss on Saturday and Stone finally cracked on Sunday. The ace gave up three runs in the first and lost 5-2.

Baltimore played well after that, but New York was just setting the bar too high. The race never really got razor-tight again the rest of the season. The Orioles finished the season with the second-best record in baseball but got left out of the October party. Nonetheless, the 1980 Baltimore Orioles, with their 100 victories, deserve a place as one of the great teams in franchise history and Earl Weaver’s successful tenure.