The 1985 California Angels weren’t in a position to be thinking about next year. Their everyday lineup had six players 34-years-old or older. The franchise had come off two non-winning seasons, going 70-92 in 1983 and 81-81 in 1984. They decided to bring back an old hand to manage their older lineup. Gene Mauch, who led the Angels to the 1982 AL West title, returned in 1985 and the result was instant success.
After the 1982 season ended with a devastating loss to the Milwaukee Brewers in the ALCS, Mauch and the Angels had gone their separate ways. But things didn’t work out with John McNamara so Mauch was back to oversee the lineup that included catcher Bob Boone (age 37), first baseman Rod Carew (39), second baseman Bobby Grich (36), third baseman Doug DeCinces (34), left fielder Brian Downing (34) and rightfielder Reggie Jackson (39).
Perhaps it’s no surprise given everyone’s advanced age—even future Hall of Famers like Carew and Jackson that California was not a potent offensive team. They finished seventh in the American League in runs scored, and were below the league average. The main problem was a lack of power.
Individually there were players who could hit home runs, with DeCinces, Downing, Jackson and free-agent signee Ruppert Jones all hitting 20-plus. But no one else could go deep at all. Nor did anyone drive the ball in the gaps, as the Angels finished 13th in the league at hitting doubles. And making contact? Well, they were dead last in batting average.
What they did was draw walks. California led the league in bases and balls. Grich’s stats were a symbol of the entire team—he finished with a solid .355 on-base percentage in spite of batting just .242. The Angels may not have hit many good pitches, but at least they didn’t go swinging at bad ones.
The starting rotation was as young as the everyday lineup was old Three 24-year-olds led the rotation. Mike Witt won 15 games with a 3.56 ERA and was the staff ace. Ron Romanick won 14 games with a 4.11 ERA and Kirk McCaskill was a little more inconsistent, but still went 12-12 at a 4.70 ERA.
Lest you think that this marked a team-wide youth movement though, the Angels ran through plenty of aging vets for the other starting pitching jobs. Tommy John, the 42-year-old sinkerballer, started six games early in the year before being released. Don Sutton, age 40, was acquired in September and made five starts. Geoff Zahn, 39-years-old, made seven starts. Jim Slaton, age 36, started 24 games and finished with a 4.37 ERA.
It was pitching where the front office made its big in-season move, acquiring John Candelaria in August. A rare bird on this team—at 31-years-old, he was neither aging nor developing—Candelaria pitched well and posted a 3.80 ERA in his thirteen starts with the Angels.
The bullpen wasn’t deep, but it had two good arms. Stew Cliburn worked 99 innings and put up a 2.09 ERA. Donnie Moore was even better in the closer’s role, saving 31 games with a 1.92 ERA. The staff as a whole finished fifth in the American League in cumulative ERA.
California played steady baseball in the early going. They took first place on April 25 and stayed there until early June, when they lost two of three, to their main AL West rival, the Kansas City Royals and slipped out of the lead. The Angels lingered anywhere from a half-game to two games out, when two weeks later they got it going.
A 17-6 run sent them into the All-Star break and there was no shortage of drama. Five of the wins came at home in walkoff fashion, including the final two of the first half against the AL East-leading Toronto Blue Jays. In both games, California trailed 3-2 in the ninth. They won the Saturday game on a two-run single by Boone. On Sunday, Grich tied it with a single and then Downing homered.
California reached the break with a record of 52-35 and they were six games up on the Oakland A’s, while extending the margin over Kansas City to 7 ½ games.
Much of that lead quickly evaporated after the break. The Angels went to Toronto, and there were no walkoff miracles. The Blue Jays crushed the Angels four straight games by a combined score of 28-7. A series loss in Oakland followed and by the time August began, California led the AL West by just two games.
They steadied the ship through August and reached Labor Day still up 2 ½ games on the Royals, while the A’s were fading fast and eight games out. California split six games in the first week of September, but Kansas City got torrid hot and took a 1 ½ game lead just in time for a three-game Angels-Royals battle in Anaheim.
Candelaria took the ball for Monday night’s opener against Kansas City’s talented young righthander Bret Saberhagen, on his way to the Cy Young Award. Candelaria got the best of it in this game, and Angel shortstop Craig Gerber got three hits and finished with 3 RBIs in an easy 7-1 win. But the bats went quiet the next two games. McCaskill was hit hard in a 6-0 loss, and then Romanick took a hard-luck 2-1 loss in a pitcher’s duel with KC lefty Danny Jackson. The Angels trailed the race by 2 ½ games.
Kansas City cooled down though and California stayed steady, winning 10 of 16 and nudging ahead by a game. The two rivals were set to meet one more time, a four-game series that would open the final week of the 1985 MLB regular season.
It was another Candelaria-Saberhagen matchup on Monday. The Angels got an early run, but this time Saberhagen settled down. Candelaria pitched well but a 3-1 loss dropped California into a first-place tie. Grich homered early in Tuesday’s game, and Witt gave 7.2 solid innings with Moore closing out the last four outs in succession. The 4-2 win moved the Angels back into the lead.
Once again, the bats went silent at the wrong time. Romanick pitched well on Wednesday, but he made a first-inning mistake to the wrong man, as KC third baseman George Brett hit a three-run blast and the Angels lost 4-0. Then they again failed to solve Jackson’s hard slider and dropped a 4-1 decision.
The series was disheartening, but down a game with the weekend to play, the Angels weren’t dead. They went to Texas, and McCaskill again struggled, losing 6-0 while Kansas City beat Oakland and clinched a tie for first. The Angels needed to win twice, hope the Royals lost twice and get a one-game playoff.
Jackson wasn’t the Mr. October of his prime anymore, but he was still clutch and he hit an early home run on Saturday, as Candelaria won 3-1. But the Royals won an extra-inning game over the A’s and the AL West race was over.
The ending was disappointing for the 1985 California Angels, especially Carew, who retired after the season, having never reached the World Series. But the other vets would come back, and the starting pitchers had gained some valuable experience. Mauch would lead to California to an AL West crown just one year later.