The Baltimore Orioles had made the American League Championship Series a regular part of their schedule in the early 1970s with five appearances from 1969-74. After a three-year hiatus, the Orioles returned to the 1979 ALCS. The California Angels were novices at this postseason baseball thing, having won their first AL West title. It was Baltimore who had the upper hand in a series whose individual games were much more competitive than the series result as a whole.
You can read more about the regular season paths each team took to its division title and the years enjoyed by the key players. This article’s focus is on the games of the 1979 ALCS itself.
The series that was then a best-of-five affair opened in Baltimore by virtue of the rotation system that existed. The first two games would be in Charm City, with the balance of the ALCS played out in Anaheim over the weekend.
Two future Hall of Famers took the ball in Game 1. Jim Palmer was on the mound for the Orioles against the Angels’ Nolan Ryan. California got to Palmer with two outs in the first, as Dan Ford hit a solo home run. Two innings later, the Angels attacked again with two outs and again it was Ford doing the damage. After a base hit by Rick Miller and a walk to Carney Lansford, Ford drilled an RBI double for a two-zip lead.
California second baseman Bobby Grich was a former Oriole and he helped his old team in the bottom half of the third with an error that triggered a Baltimore rally. Rick Dempsey hit an RBI double and light-hitting shortstop Mark Belanger tied the game with a two-out RBI single.
The Angels should have gotten to Palmer again in the fourth when Rod Carew led off with a double and there were quickly runners on the corners with no one out. But Palmer escaped and his team took the lead in the inning’s bottom half. Pat Kelly drew a walk, stole second, took third on a wild pitch and scored on a sac fly from third baseman Doug DeCinces.
Carew, one of the best pure contact hitters to ever play the game singled in the sixth and scored the tying run on a double by Grich. The Orioles were in position to get the lead right back when they put two on with one out. But Ryan induced Lee May to hit into a 5-4-3 double play.
Palmer was now dialed in and rolled through the ninth, keeping the Angels at bay. Ryan left after seven, but John Montague kept the Orioles under control in the eighth and ninth. The game went into extra innings.
California went quietly in the top of the 10th against reliever Don Stanhouse. DeCinces led off the home half of the inning. DeCinces would soon leave Baltimore via free agency to join these same Angels, but tonight he was just a thorn in the side of California manager Gene Mauch. DeCinces began the 10th with a single and was quickly bunted up to second. With two outs, Montague intentionally walked leadoff hitter Al Bumbry.
John Lowenstein, a platoon outfielder and left-handed hitting specialist was up. He launched a three-run blast to win the game 6-3. Lowenstein was the hero, but Baltimore pitching had been decisive—over the last four innings, California managed just one hit, a single by Carew.
Game 2 was a late Thursday afternoon start, beginning shortly after 3 PM, so there was no time for the Angels to lament their Game 1 fate. Especially not when Baltimore was coming back with soon-to-be Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan.
The second game started just like the first—with a two-out solo blast from Ford to get the Angels a quick 1-0 lead. But this one quickly got away from California starter Dave Frost when it was time for him to take the mound.
Bumbry led off with a single and then stole second. Subsequent singles by Eddie Murray, Kelly, DeCinces, two walks and an error produced four runs. In the bottom of the second, Bumbry walked and again stole second. After he scored on a base hit from Kiko Garcia, Frost was out and Mark Clear was in.
It didn’t help. After a single from Ken Singleton, Murray delivered a three-run jack and this game was blown wide open early 8-1. When DeCinces led off the Oriole third with a walk and scored on consecutive two-out singles from Bumbry and Garcia, it looked like just another meaningless run that made it 9-1. It turned out to be incredibly important.
Flanagan cruised through five. The Angels touched him again in the sixth when Carew doubled and came around on a single form Lansford. In the seventh, singles from Don Baylor and Brian Downing led to a Grich sac fly and it was 9-3. Still nothing to suggest a game was in the offing.
The top of the eighth was when it got interesting. Flanagan issued a leadoff walk. After an error, Lansford drove in a run that made it 9-4 and left runners on the corners. Baylor, who would win the AL MVP award from the DH spot this year, drove in another run with a single that moved Lansford to third and chased Flanagan. Downing hit a sac fly.
Baltimore might have put the game away all over again after two bunt singles opened the bottom of the eighth, but they couldn’t get anything across. It set the stage for a dramatic ninth inning.
Stanhouse walked the leadoff man, Larry Harlow, and then gave up a one-out double to pinch-hitter Willie Davis. California had made it all the way back to have the tying run at the plate. Carew grounded out. One run scored, but the Angels were down to their last breath. Ford was up and he singled the other way. The hit cut the lead to 9-8 and on a futile throw to third, Ford moved up to second. The winning run was improbably in scoring position.
Oriole manager Earl Weaver ordered an intentional walk to Baylor, preferring to take his chances with Downing. The move paid off. Downing bounced a grounder to DeCinces who stepped on third. Baltimore survived a hair-raising 9-8 finish.
A rain-out had delayed the opening of the ALCS by a day, so the normal day off for travel was not in place. The teams headed west and were back on the field for Friday night, an early evening start locally and prime-time in the East. The Orioles sent Dennis Martinez out to try and clinch their first pennant since 1971. Frank Tanana, the Angel lefty, had his team’s season in his hands.
For the third straight game, California scored in the first inning and though it wasn’t Ford hitting a home run, the rightfielder was still in the middle of it. After Lansford singled and stole second, Ford picked him up with a base hit. The 1-0 lead held until the top of the fourth, when Singleton doubled and consecutive singles from Murray and May tied the game.
Baylor did not have a good ALCS, going just 3-for-16. His biggest hit came in the bottom of the fourth in Game 3 when he homered for a 2-1 lead. The Angels had a great chance to extend the lead in the bottom of the fifth when the bases were loaded with one out. Alas, Ford finally came up short, hitting into a double play.
In the top of the sixth, Baltimore made it hurt. Singleton and Murray singled and May drew a walk to load the bases with none out. DeCinces sac fly tied the game and moved Murray to third. Now it was California’s turn to come up big defensively. Rich Dauer hit a fly ball to center that Murray tried to tag up on. Miller gunned him down at the plate and kept it a 2-2 game.
It didn’t stay that way long though. Bumbry lashed a one-out triple in the seventh and scored the go-ahead run. In the meantime, Martinez was cruising, having set down ten in a row heading into the ninth inning. Then he got Baylor to start the final frame.
Carew wasn’t going quietly and he went the other way for a double into the left-center gap. Weaver called for Stanhouse. The reliever walked Downing, but Grich to hit a lazy fly ball to center. Unbelievably, the reliable Bumbry dropped it and the game was tied. Harlow then doubled and the Angels had stolen a 4-3 win.
All three games had been heartstoppers. Bumbry was on a big hook if his team didn’t close out this ALCS. But he and all of Baltimore could soon breathe easy. Because the thrill-a-minute baseball that marked the first three games was about to come to a screeching halt on Saturday afternoon.
Baltimore got after California starter Chris Knapp in the third for two runs. A base hit, a walk and a bunt single led to a Singleton sac fly and RBI hit for Murray. Even though Gary Roenicke hit into a double play the Orioles already had enough runs for lefty Scott McGregor.
DeCinces and Dempsey each doubled in the fourth to make it 3-0. The Angels rallied in the fifth, when singles by Downing and Grich helped load the bases with none out. But a Miller fly ball wasn’t deep enough to score a run and McGregor then induced a double play ground ball. The 1979 ALCS effectively ended at this point.
Baltimore blew it open in the seventh. Singleton and Roenicke each had RBI singles and Kelly delivered the coup de grace with a three-run blast that opened an 8-0 lead. McGregor completed a six-hit shutout and the Orioles were returning to the World Series.
The American League was still a year away from voting an LCS MVP, so this honor is left vacant. If we can fill it retroactively, the pick would be Murray. He was 5-for-12, homered and the multiple intentional walks he kept getting underscored how much California feared him and got his OBP for the series to .588.
Other heroes included Dempsey, who went 4-for-10 with two doubles and Singleton was 6-for-16. On the California side, Carew had seven hits and Ford’s consistent first-inning dominance always had the Angels in games.
Baltimore briefly kept their momentum going in the 1979 World Series against Pittsburgh. The Orioles grabbed the first two games at home and led the series 3-1, with Murray again hitting the ball well. But the first baseman’s fortunes tracked those of the team. He began to slump, the rest of the offense went with him and the Pirates won the final three games.
The 1979 ALCS wasn’t the last we were going to see of either franchise. The Angels returned here in 1982 and again in 1986, though each loss got progressively more heartbreaking and it wasn’t until 2002 that they finally put their demons to rest and won it all.
The Orioles would not wait nearly as long—this core group of players, augmented by a young shortstop with the name of Ripken, would win it all in 1983.