After a heartbreaking ALCS loss in 1986, the Angels had slipped to irrelevance over the next two seasons, going 75-87 each time. The 1989 California Angels turned into a surprise contender and only the high quality of the AL West and the more stringent postseason standards of the era kept them out of the playoffs.
Pitching was the driving force behind the success. Bert Blyleven made 33 starts, won 17 games and posted a 2.73 ERA. Blyleven finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in the last really good year of his Hall of Fame career.
Blyleven anchored a rotation that got very good years from Kirk McCaskill and Chuck Finley, who combined to start 61 games, deliver 31 wins and finish with sub-3.00 ERAs themselves. Jim Abbott, the one-handed wonder, went to the post 29 times and was a respectable 12-12 with a 3.92 ERA.
The only starter who wasn’t effective was Mike Witt, whose fall from grace over the last couple years had tracked with the team overall. But even with a 4.54 ERA, when your rotation’s weakest link can make 33 starts, it’s a sign your staff is in pretty good shape.
Bryan Harvey saved 25 games and Willie Fraser had a good year in setup. The Angels also squeezed solid seasons out of a pair of 37-year-olds, right-handed Greg Minton and lefty Bob McClure. The quality of the bullpen, combined with the rotation, gave California the second-best staff ERA in the American League.
But the offense was a problem. Even though the Angels led the league in home runs, that was about all they did well. The lineup ranked in the lower parts of the 14-team AL in batting average, walks, doubles and stolen bases. It’s tough to build an offense around solo home runs.
Chili Davis led the team with 22 long balls and had a respectable stat line of .340 on-base percentage/.436 slugging percentage. Wally Joyner popped 16 homers at first base, veteran catcher Lance Parrish hit 17 more and DH Brian Downing had a .354 OBP. But there wasn’t much else on an offense that ranked just 12th in the American League in runs scored.
The AL West had a heavy favorite in the Oakland A’s, who were fresh off a run to the American League pennant in 1988. But with their star left fielder, Jose Canseco, out for the first half of the season, the door was at least a little bit ajar for anyone else who wanted to get in the mix.
There was no evidence in the early weeks that the Angels would be that team. They split their first 18 games, a stretch that included five losses in seven games to the A’s. On the final weekend of April, the Toronto Blue Jays came to town.
The Blue Jays would end up winning the AL East, but they were off to a terrible start. The Angels swept this series, then turned around and swept the return trip to Toronto. It was all part of a dominating run through the league’s weaker division. By Memorial Day, the Angels were 31-16.
Baseball’s alignment of this era had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West. What’s more, only the first-place finisher could advance to the postseason. California’s excellent start still left them a game back of Oakland, who rolled on without Canseco. Kansas City was in the AL West prior to the creation of the Central Division in 1994 and the Royals were 3 ½ off the pace. Texas was 4 ½ out.
All four of these teams would have had a solid lead in the AL East, where a 23-22 start by the Baltimore Orioles was setting the pace.
And it was the Orioles who came to Anaheim on June 22, with the Angels in the midst of some early summer doldrums. They came out of the Memorial Day holiday and were swept at Kansas City and Texas, while revived Toronto came west and got a revenge sweep. California was now 3 ½ games out as they faced Baltimore in a four-game set.
The struggles continued in a 6-5 loss to open the series on Thursday night. Witt took the ball on Friday night and stopped the bleeding. Aided by home runs from veteran outfielder Claudell Washington and third baseman Jack Howell, Witt won 5-1.
Howell kept hitting with three more hits on Saturday night. Joyner and centerfielder Devon White also had three hits. Downing drove in three runs and California won 8-3. Joyner had another big day on Sunday, with two hits that included a home run. The Angels jumped out to an early 7-1 lead in the finale, hung on to win 7-6 and the strong weekend had them back on track.
By the All-Star break, California was 52-33 and had the best record in all of baseball. They were a game and a half up on Oakland, up 3 ½ on Kansas City and 5 ½ on Texas. Even with the low expectations of the preseason and the high bar being set in the AL West, a return to October was now a real possibility.
Joyner had a magical weekend at home against Detroit coming out of the break. In a four-game series, he had the walkoff RBI three different times—once with a single, another time with a home run, and another by getting plunked with the bases loaded. California won the other game in 16 innings.
The Angels couldn’t get separation from the A’s though and on July 24, the two teams were tied for first. California went north to Oakland for the first of two big head-to-matchups the contenders would have.
Chili Davis and Howell each homered in Monday night’s opener to key a 5-4 win. They came back on Tuesday and homered again, giving Finley all the support he needed in a 4-0 win. Even though Witt got knocked around in a 9-5 loss on Wednesday, the Angels had taken the series and held a one-game lead.
But in a long baseball season, August can be the cruelest month. So it was for the ’89 Angels. In the heat of the dog days, California lost two of three when Oakland made the return trip south. The Angels dropped three of four at home to Kansas City. They went east and lost three of four to mediocre Boston and were swept by what was a bad Yankees team.
On Labor Day, California’s 78-58 record was excellent by most standards. Unfortunately, one of those standards was not this year’s AL West. The Angels had slipped to third place, 4 ½ back of the A’s, and the Royals nestled in between.
Over the next two weeks, California won 8 of 13 while Oakland stumbled a bit. It was enough to close the gap to 2 ½ games, move into a tie for second with Kansas City and give some hope for a closing push.
The Angels went up to Minnesota and swept the Twins. It kept the pressure on, but the A’s revived themselves and kept the challengers at arm’s length. Over a four-game weekend stretch at lowly Cleveland, California finally buckled. They lost all four games. Any hope of running down Oakland came to an end.
A final record of 91-71 left the Angels in third place. It was still a record that would have won the AL East by two games. It was still a record that was the sixth-best in all of baseball and it was a record that would have easily made these Angels a playoff team by the standards of today. But the A’s of the Bash Brothers era were tough to keep up with.
What’s more disappointing is that this proved to be a one-year wonder. With Blyleven aging, Witt in a surprise career descent at age 28 and the offense a liability in either case, California slipped back to mediocrity as fast as they had risen. Their next winning season didn’t come until 1995, a year they lost a tiebreaker game for the division title. And their next postseason appearance didn’t take place until the magical championship year of 2002.