The 1977 Baltimore Orioles Fall Just Short In A Close AL East Race
From 1969-74, the AL East had dominated by Baltimore, as they won five division titles in that six-year period. The Orioles slipped back to second place in 1975 & 1976, winning 90 & 88 games respectively, and losing out to the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in successive years. The 1977 Baltimore Orioles made a surge forward and won 97 games, but again had to settle for second place.
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Baltimore suffered key free agent losses in the offseason. Second baseman Bobby Grich departed, and the biggest loss was Reggie Jackson, who spent one year with the Orioles in between his more heralded tenures in Oakland and New York. Jackson’s decision to sign with the rival Yankees made his loss hurt twice as much.
Paul Blair, the great defensive centerfielder, was traded to New York in a deal that did not work out. Elliot Maddox was the key piece coming back, and while Maddox finished with an on-base percentage of .375, he only played 49 games.
If offseason moves weren’t going to help, then someone had to come from within and the Orioles found a future Hall of Famer in 21-year-old Eddie Murray. He hit 27 home runs and finished with 88 RBI, playing the DH role this year while 34-year0old Lee May still occupied first base. May hit 27 home runs of his own and drove in 99.
The Baltimore offense was top-heavy, with Ken Singleton being the other big-time contributor. With a .438 on-base percentage, 24 home runs and 99 RBI, Singleton finished third in the American League MVP voting.
Other contributors included centerfielder Al Bumbry and his .371 OBP, and young third baseman Doug DeCinces, who finished with a .339 OBP/.433 slugging percentage. Overall though the Oriole offense did not have great depth and they finished 7th in the 14-team American League in runs scored.
Pitching was what defined the Orioles in manager Earl Weaver’s tenure and while the 1977 staff wasn’t on a par with what was produced in 1969-74, it was still pretty good. Jim Palmer won 20 games, pitched over 300 innings and finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
Palmer was supported by Rudy May, the lefty who won 18 and pitched 251 innings. Mike Flanagan, the 25-year-old who would win the Cy Young in 1979, won 15 with a 3.64 ERA. Ross Grimsley was another 200-inning horse.
The rotation suffered the same problem as the lineup, and it was a lack of depth. Tippy Martinez, with a 2.70 ERA, was the only reliable reliever. There were two talented 23-year-olds, Scott McGregor and Dennis Martinez, who had bright futures ahead of them in the rotation. But in a mix of relief and spot starting each had ERAs in the 4s in 1977.
Baltimore lost three straight at home to Texas to open the season and were still just 9-8 by the end of April. It was May that things picked up, starting off with an 8-3 stretch against poor opposition in Seattle and Oakland. The Orioles then won three of five games in New York, including a 12-inning Saturday affair where Murray hit a two-out, two-run single to win it.
When Memorial Day came, Baltimore was 25-17 and in first place, a game and a half up on New York and 2 ½ ahead of Boston. But the Orioles started June by losing seven of ten, including two straight in Fenway Park when they were outscored by the Red Sox 21-8. Baltimore slipped two games back and when Boston came south to old Memorial Stadium it got worse—the Red Sox scored 25 runs in a four games, the Orioles were shut out twice and by the time the sweep was finished, Baltimore was staring at a 6 ½ game deficit in the AL East.
The Orioles nudged back to within 3 ½ games and then went up to Fenway to turn the tables. The opener of a three-game series was shaping up as a classic duel between Palmer and Boston ace Luis Tiant and Baltimore trailed 2-1 after seven innings. DeCinces unloaded, hitting home runs in both the seventh and the eighth and the Orioles pulled away to an 8-2 win. They won the next game 5-2 behind Flanagan and a 12-8 slugfest completed the sweep.
New York was waiting back at Memorial Stadium and after dropping the opener, Baltimore again heated up. They trailed the second game 5-3 in the eighth with Yankee closer Sparky Lyle, who ultimately won the Cy Young Award on the mound. The Orioles scored three times and beat Lyle 6-5. Grimsley threw a shutout in a 6-0 win. Murray closed out the series with a walkoff RBI single in a 4-3 win.
By the All-Star break, Baltimore was 53-39, a game and a half up on Boston and three games ahead of New York.
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A late July trip to Yankee Stadium saw things start to turn for the worse. The Orioles held a 4-0 lead early in the game and were still up 4-2 in the ninth. Tippy Martinez gave up a two-run homer to tie it, and then Reggie won it for the Yanks with a walkoff shot in the tenth. Baltimore lost two of three in the series and it led to an August where control of the race got away.
It had less to do with the Orioles, who played reasonably well, going 16-11 and more to do with the Yankees, who sizzled in August with a 22-7 mark. But either way, it meant that on Labor Day, the Orioles were five games out and in third place. The Red Sox were 4 ½ out in second.
Baltimore took advantage of a soft schedule stretch in September and won 10 of 13 from Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto and closed to within 2 ½ games to stay alive. The Orioles won a series with the Red Sox and pushed to within a game and a half on September 22 with a week and a half to go. It was still a race.
The problem was, the divisional matchups, especially with the Yankees, had been frontloaded and Baltimore was out of chances to play New York. The Orioles dropped two of three in Cleveland and when the final weekend began, Baltimore and Boston were both three games back and playing head-to-head. One of them had to sweep and the Yankees had to be swept at home by lowly Detroit.
New York lost on Friday night, and a slugfest ensued in Fenway. The young arms, Dennis Martinez and McGregor, struggled and the Orioles trailed 11-7 in the ninth. Then they scored three times and loaded the bases with one out. Maddox came to the plate. The failure of the Blair trade came full circle right here as Maddox struck out. Bumbry grounded out and the bid for the AL East title was over.
Baltimore got a small token of revenge on Saturday, knocking out Boston with an 8-7 win on a day New York lost again. With both the Orioles and Red Sox now eliminated, when the rain came on Sunday, they just called it a season. Each team finished 97-64.
Weaver had moved his team back closer to the top than they had been since 1974. Although the New York run would last one more year, by 1979, the Orioles would reclaim the top spot in the AL East.