A September Surge Saves The 1984 Kansas City Royals

The 1984 Kansas City Royals weren’t one of the stronger teams in the franchise’s halcyon days from 1976-85. The season looked lost several times and the final record was a mediocre 84-78. But in a year where the AL West was weak, the Royals put together a September surge that won them a division title.

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It was a division title that was, at least by the standards of Royals baseball at this time, a long time coming. After winning the AL West four times from 1976-80 and winning the pennant in 1980, the Royals had seen the A’s, Angels and White Sox all take turns winning the division. Some offseason changes were made.

Amos Otis, the centerfielder who’d been such a big part of the late 1970s, was let go. Kansas City then made two good pickups in power-hitting first baseman Steve Balboni from the Yankees and relief pitcher Joe Beckwith from the Dodgers. K.C. only gave up minor leaguers that never panned out. Balboni hit 28 home runs and had a nice career run in Kansas City. Beckwith logged 100 innings out of the pen and posted a 3.40 ERA.

Other young players included catcher Don Slaught and shortstop Onix Concepion, though neither were very productive. Nor was rightfielder Pat Sheridan. Two veterans, designated hitter Hal McRae and second baseman Frank White were in decline, but managed to contribute something. White hit 17 home runs. McRae’s power was gone, but he finished with a .363 on-base percentage.

Darryl Motley hit 15 home runs from the left field spot, while centerfielder Willie Wilson batted over .300 and stole 47 bases. Ultimately though, the Royals offense ranked just 11th in the American League in runs scored because of relatively bad year from third baseman George Brett.

The word “relatively” has to be emphasized. Brett finished with an on-base percentage of .344 and a slugging percentage of .459, which is hardly an embarrassment. But after years of production at Hall of Fame levels, this was a dropoff and he also only played 104 games due to a series of nagging injuries.

Pitching was better than the hitting, although the Royals were still only in the middle of the league in ERA. Bud Black was the staff ace, winning 17 games with a 3.12 ERA. Black’s 35 starts made him the only pitcher to go to the post 30-plus times as manager Dick Howser kept finishing for a combination that would work.

Mark Gubicza was a young arm on the rise though he only finished 10-14, he posted a respectable 4.05 ERA in 29 starts. Larry Gura was a veteran on the decline and the 36-year-old lefty struggled to a 5.18 ERA. Charlie Leibrandt, a finesse lefty in the Gura mold, although younger, was able to win 11 games with a 3.63 ERA.

Two young arms with bright futures ahead of them also got their share of work. Danny Jackson made 11 starts with a 4.26 ERA. And the man who would be a World Series hero by 1985, 20-year-old Bret Saberhagen made 18 starts along with a lot of relief work. He finished 10-11 and the ERA was a solid 3.48.

The entire pitching staff ultimately pointed to submarine-style throwing closer Dan Quisenberry. One of the top relievers in baseball in the early 1980s, Quisenberry finished in the top three of the Cy Young voting four straight years, though he never won it. This year he saved 44 games—at a time when every closer in baseball didn’t routinely rack up huge save numbers. He finished second in the Cy Young race to another closer, Detroit’s Willie Hernandez. And with Hernandez winning the MVP, Quisenberry finished third in that race.

The Royals stumbled right away out of the gate, starting 5-15. They played nine games against the two best teams in the AL East, Detroit and Toronto and lost eight of them. Kansas City was able to stop the bleeding, but by Memorial Day the record was still just 18-24. The good news was that .500 was good enough to lead the AL West, so they were only three games back.

A 6-2 stretch against Minnesota and Seattle had K.C. knocking on the door of the break-even mark, but they promptly lost nine of eleven to give the ground back and by June 20 they were in last place and 6 ½ games out. Once again, Howser steadied the ship and by the All-Star break the Royals had chipped back to a record of 39-43 and were within four games of first in a division where no one had any separation.

If anyone thought a rejuvenated K.C. team would come out of the All-Star break, their illusions were quickly shattered. The Royals went to Yankee Stadium for a five-game series and got swept, scoring just six runs in the process. Kansas City lost three of four to Cleveland the season hit its nadir with a record of 40-51 and an eight-game deficit in the AL West.

Oddly, it was games against the far superior AL East that turned the season around. The Royals went on a 9-3 run against the other division, including a four-game sweep of Toronto where they scored 28 runs. In early August, Kansas City went to Detroit, who was having one of the great seasons of the modern era. The Royals had another offensive explosion, scoring 27 runs in four games in a series sweep.

The White Sox were the defending divisional champs, but were starting to fade as the stretch drive approached. The Royals facilitated that fade, winning four of six games against their rival. By the time Labor Day arrived, Kansas City had reached the .500 mark at 68-68. They were in second place, just a game back of Minnesota. The California Angels were only a game and a half out. These three teams would chase the watered-down AL West crown to the end.

K.C. would begin a run of head-to-head battles with a three-game homer series against Minnesota on Labor Day. It didn’t start well, when the Royals only mustered five hits in a 4-1 loss. But Gubicza and Leibrandt answered the bell with strong outings of eight-plus innings the next two games. Quisenberry closed out a pair of 4-1 wins for the Royals. When Kansas City followed that up with a weekend series sweep of Seattle, they were in first place.

The margin was still only a single game and K.C. now made the return trip to the Twin Cities the following week. Gubicza pitched the opener and only trailed 3-2 in the eighth inning before he finally cracked and Minnesota broke the game open. A similar pattern happened the next night. Leibrandt pitched well, trailed 1-0 in the seventh, but then came apart as the Twins took their revenge on the two pitchers who had beaten them in Kansas City.

In the series finale, Black did what an ace does—he pitched eight strong innings. The game was tied 2-2 in the ninth. Concepion and Wilson both singled, were bunted over and Jorge Orta picked up the winning run with a sac fly. Kansas City then traveled to Seattle for the weekend and won two of three. The week ended with the Royals and Twins tied for first and the Angels a half-game back. There were two weeks to go.

Now it was time to play California and Kansas City stayed out west for a four-game series. The offense unloaded in the first two games, with six home runs by six different players and the combined score was 20-1. That same offense went quiet in the next two games. They got eleven hits combined and lost a 4-3 game in extra innings and were shut out 2-zip in the series finale. The Royals returned home to take a weekend series from the A’s. K.C. entered the final week still tied with Minnesota, and California a game and a half back.

For the fourth straight week, the Royals opened with a series against a fellow contender. The only thing that could have made this stretch run schedule any better was if these games were on the weekend. A Monday doubleheader began a four-game set and Saberhagen was brilliant in the opener, tossing a three-hitter in a 4-0 win. The bats came through in the nightcap. Brett drove in three runs and Motley unleashed with a grand slam and six RBIs in a 12-4 win. The Twins beat the White Sox, but K.C. was at least starting to separate from California.

The Royals all but crushed the Angels chances on Tuesday in a great baseball game. Trailing 5-4 I the ninth, Wilson walked, stole second and scored the tying run on a base hit by Dane Iorg. Quisenberry came on in relief and tossed four innings of shutout ball as the game went to the 12th inning. Iorg, who in the 1985 World Series, would get a walkoff RBI to win a legendary Game 6, came through again. He doubled, and it set up an RBI single from Balboni.

Even though Kansas City lost the finale 2-0, getting only four hits and wasting a good effort from Black, Minnesota had lost the final two games to Chicago. The last weekend began with K.C. up by a game and a half.

The Royals were off on Thursday and watched Minnesota blow a 3-0 eighth-inning lead in Cleveland and the margin extended to two games. On Friday night, with Kansas City having a late start in Oakland, they watched the Twins cough another one up, this one in stunning fashion. After scoring ten runs in the first two innings, Minnesota let Cleveland chip all the way back and closer Ron Davis blew it for the second straight night. The Indians delivered a stunning 11-10 win.

Kansas City played Oakland knowing that a one-game playoff was the worst they could do and one more win would clinch. After an up-and-down season and dramatic September, the Royals took care of business right away. The veterans came through, as White had three hits, including a triple and home run. Brett also homered, while the young Concepion met the moment with a three-hit game. The 6-5 win clinched the division.

It was by no means the greatest of division titles, with five AL East teams having a better record and no one else in the AL West breaking .500. Kansas City was summarily dispatched from the ALCS by the Detroit Tigers. But it was still a fun stretch run, it added another piece to the legacy of this period in franchise history…and it set the stage for the greatest year of 1985 when the Royals finally won the World Series.