After three years of playing winning baseball, but not seriously contending in a rigorous AL East, the 1981 Detroit Tigers made a real run at the postseason. They came up just short, but it continued the growth trajectory for the emerging core of young players and manager Sparky Anderson.
Detroit’s pitching made significant strides after being the primary reason for a 1980 campaign that was a modest disappointment. In the strike-shortened 1981 season, Jack Morris made 25 starts, went 14-7 and posted a 3.05 ERA. Milt Wilcox and Dan Petry had similar numbers. Wilcox won twelve games and with 3.03 ERA. Petry’s 3.00 ERA was actually the best in the rotation as he picked up ten wins.
Kevin Saucier stepped into the closer’s role and was outstanding, with a 1.65 ERA and 13 saves. Aurelio Lopez and Dave Tobik rounded out a pretty good bullpen. The rotation lacked depth, but Dave Rozema did enough shuttle work between the rotation and the pen to stabilize things and the Tigers finished fifth in the American League for staff ERA.
The offense, after having been baseball’s best in 1980, fell hard in ’81. Two veterans, Richie Hebner at first and Al Cowens in right, had bad seasons that signaled the decline of their careers. Third base was a black hole as far as offensive production. A bench that had been terrific in 1980, did nothing in 1981. Steve Kemp, the leftfielder who had been the best Tiger hitter a year earlier, still had a .389 OBP, but his power disappeared.
More disappointing was the drop off from the talented young players that were making Detroit a rising force. Alan Trammell’s OBP of .342 was respectable, but there was no power to speak of. The same went for second baseman Lou Whitaker. Catcher Lance Parrish had a down year.
The only Tiger regular to have a good year was the newest of the young players. Kirk Gibson, now in his second year, got a full-time opportunity in rightfield and took advantage. Gibson finished with a .369 on-base percentage and .479 slugging percentage. It was enough to at least keep the Detroit offense afloat, at ninth in the 14-team American League for runs scored.
Detroit took advantage of an early schedule that was heavy on lowly Toronto and won seven of their first nine. But a nine-game losing streak sent the Tigers reeling. Six of those losses came to the New York Yankees, the defending AL East champs, and Detroit scored just eight runs in those six games.
A 10-3 run in late May included series wins over contending teams in Baltimore and Milwaukee. By June 11, Detroit was 31-26, in fourth place and 3 ½ games off the pace. In a normal year, it would be about time for a summer pennant race to get underway.
But 1981 was no ordinary year. On June 12, the players went out on strike. They would not return until mid-August. Baseball had to figure out how to pick up the pieces.
The alignment of baseball in the era from 1969-93 had each league split into just two divisions, an East and West, and only first-place teams going to the playoffs. That meant Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee (an American League team prior to 1998) were put in the East, along with current members in New York, Boston, Baltimore and Toronto.
Major League Baseball decided that the way forward in 1981 was to use a split season. The teams in first place on June 12 were declared first-half champions. Everyone would start fresh. The winners of the two halves would then meet in the first-ever installment of the Division Series. The Yankees were in the playoffs. Everyone else was playing to get a shot at New York.
There was one significant caveat to the playoff format. A true split-season would give the first-half champ a chance to win both halves and eliminate the need for a Division Series entirely. Not so in this case. Presumably to protect television contracts for October, MLB declared that if one team won both halves, the only reward would be an additional home game.
New York, like the other first-half champs, basically mailed in the second half. But they were plenty of competitors in an AL East that was then baseball’s toughest division. Baltimore and Boston were perennial contenders. Milwaukee joined Detroit as the up-and-coming team looking for a breakthrough. And the second-half race in this division would be terrific.
Detroit came blazing out of the gate at the August reset. They beat the Yankees three of four, and then won nine in a row. By Labor Day, the Tigers were 18-9 and in first place. The Brewers and Orioles were two games back in the loss column, with the Red Sox three off the pace. It might be a strange way to get to a pennant race, but stretch drive excitement had finally returned to Detroit.
A temporary hiccup saw the Tigers lose a home series with Boston. In the rubber game, Rozema coughed up a 4-1 lead in the eighth. Detroit bounced back on the weekend by sweeping Cleveland. Their margin in the loss column extended to four games.
But the return trip to Fenway was disastrous. The Tigers mustered only six hits in losing Monday night’s opener 5-2. After a day of rain on Tuesday, the teams played a twilight doubleheader (where the first game started about 5 PM and there was just a twenty-minute break in between) on Wednesday. Morris and Eckersley went at it in a great pitcher’s duel in the opener. Morris pitched into the 10th inning before losing 2-1.
In the nightcap, the Tigers took a 4-3 lead into the seventh thanks to a pair of RBI from Gibson. Then Tobik, after some steady relief work, gave up two runs and another loss hit the books. In the Thursday finale, Detroit’s flagging offense only produced seven singles in a 6-1 loss.
By the time the carnage was over, a race Detroit had firmly in hand, was up for grabs. The Tigers still had the lead, but the Red Sox and Brewers were now just a half-game back and the Orioles only one game off the pace. There were two weeks to go.
A road series in Baltimore was must-win. Wilcox took the ball on Monday and got a 5-1 win, with help from a home run by Gibson. After spotting the Orioles a 3-0 lead on Tuesday, utility man John Wockenfuss hit a big home run and the Tigers won 6-3. Even though Petry was a hard luck 1-0 loser on Wednesday, Detroit had stopped the bleeding.
But the wound reopened on the weekend at home against Milwaukee. Morris and Wilcox were rocked off the mound. The Brewers moved into first place until Petry reclaimed it for Detroit, winning 2-1 in the Sunday finale.
The Tiger record was 27-19 going into the final week. The Brewers were 27-20, the Red Sox at 26-20 and the Orioles on 24-21. All four teams would open the final week by going head-to-head.
Detroit was hosting Baltimore. The lack of rotation depth showed on Monday in a 7-3 loss. Milwaukee knocked off Boston and the Brewers took the division lead. The Tigers responded with a vengeance on Tuesday. Gibson, Wockenfuss and Tom Brookens all hit home runs. Morris tossed a three-hitter. Detroit won 14-0. The Red Sox beat the Brewers and the Tigers were back in first.
Rain delayed Wednesday’s game and the Tigers watched the Brewers close out a series win over the Red Sox. On Thursday afternoon, Detroit lost their own series finale to Baltimore.
The Tigers were going to Milwaukee to close the season. That meant that even though all four contenders were still packed on top of each other, the Red Sox and Orioles were effectively boxed out. It also meant the half-game that Detroit trailed Milwaukee by was irrelevant. No effort was going to be made to ensure contenders played an equal number of games. It was a simple best two-of-three between the Tigers and Brewers for the second half title in the AL East.
Petry took the ball on Friday night and was hit hard. An 8-2 loss put Detroit on the brink of elimination. They turned to Morris to keep them alive.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in front of a national audience, Morris was brilliant in shutting down one of baseball’s best offensive lineups. He took a 1-0 lead into the eighth.
It was a leadoff walk that got Morris in trouble. Detroit flubbed two consecutive sacrifice bunts, allowing Milwaukee to load the bases with no one out. A ground ball out tied the game and a sac fly put the Brewers ahead. In an agonizing loss, the Tigers had not given up a hit in letting the lead get away. The playoff push was over.
Even with the heartbreaking ending, 1981 was still a breakthrough year for Detroit. They gave their fan base a taste of the pennant race. And while the quality of the AL East and the rigor of making the playoffs meant the big breakthrough would still take some time, Detroit was clearly coming on strong.