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.
One team was one of baseball’s history-laden franchises, the other an expansion team. But they were united a shared heritage of heartbreak. The Boston Red Sox and California Angels met at the 1986 ALCS and it was inevitable that somebody’s fan base would be crushed when it was over. In a rare turnabout for the pre-2004 era it was the Red Sox who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat rather than the other way around.
Boston and California had each pulled away from their respective divisions and made September anticlimactic. Homefield advantage was determined on a rotation basis rather than merit, so there was really nothing to do for the last few weeks of the regular season than point to this showdown. You can read about the paths each team took to its division title at the links below. This article focuses exclusively on the games of the 1986 ALCS.
The series opened on a Tuesday night in Fenway Park, and it was a matchup of aces. Roger Clemens won by the Cy Young and MVP for the Red Sox, while the Angels’ Mike Witt finished third in the Cy Young voting. And to the surprise of the Fenway crowd, this was Witt’s night.
In the top of the second, Clemens issued a pair of walks and then in rapid succession, Ruppert Jones singled, Wally Joyner doubled and Brian Downing singled to left. It was suddenly 4-0. In the top of the third, California had some more two-out magic. After an error by Boston shortstop Spike Owen, the Angels got hits from Bob Boone and Gary Pettis and the lead was 5-zip.
Witt was in command and not until the sixth did the Red Sox get on the board. Owen drew a walk, Wade Boggs beat out an infield hit and Marty Barrett took a single the other way to right. But it was not the sign of an impending comeback. Witt finished off a complete-game five-hitter with no further damage. Clemens worked into the eighth, sparing the bullpen, but the Angels tacked on another couple runs in the 8-1 win.
Lefty Bruce Hurst got the ball for the Red Sox on Wednesday night who faced a virtual must-win on their homefield. Kirk McCaskill was on the mound for the Angels. This time it was Boston who came out on the attack. In the bottom of the first, Boggs lead off with a triple and Barrett doubled him home. In the bottom of the second, Rich Gedman and Owen singled and Boggs beat out another infield hit.
The bases were loaded with one out. Barrett popped a single to left and it was 2-0. McCaskill escaped further damage by getting Bill Buckner to bounce back to the mound and start a double play. California took advantage by tying the game up in the middle innings. Downing and Doug DeCinces opened with singles. A Boggs error and an infield hit by Dick Schofield brought in a run. One inning later Joyner homered to make it 2-2.
Boston got the lead back in the bottom of the frame when Buckner singled, veteran DH Don Baylor worked out a two-out walk and Dwight Evans doubled in the lead run. In the seventh, the Red Sox got real separation. After an error by second baseman Bobby Grich, Jim Rice singled and Baylor walked. Another error, this one by DeCinces at third, made the game 4-2.
McCaskill looked ready to get out of it when he got a ground ball to second that looked like a double play. California got the out at second, but Schofield’s throw to first went awry and two more runs scored. McCaskill was done and so were the Angels. Hurt gave up eleven hits, but finished the game because Joyner’s home run was the only one that went for extra bases. The Red Sox tacked on three runs in the eighth for good measure, keyed by Rice’s two-run homer. The final was 9-2.
An anticipated series had opened with two blowouts. At the very least, the Joyner routs had gone both ways, so there was room for excitement to build. And the three games out in Anaheim would be a building crescendo of drama.
Oil Can Boyd, the colorful Red Sox righthander got the Game 3 start and faced off with John Candelaria, a veteran of the Pittsburgh Pirates 1979 World Series champions. Boston got an early run in the second, but a baserunning error prevented a bigger inning. Rice led off with a walk and Baylor singled, but the lefthanded Candelaria picked Baylor off of first. Subsequent singles by Evans and Gedman only resulted in one run.
The Angels threatened in the fourth, putting runners on first and second with two outs. DeCinces then beat out an infield single to first, but Joyner tried to score all the way from second. Buckner wasn’t buying and threw him out at the plate. The Red Sox blew a bigger opportunity in the top of the fifth, failing to score after getting men on second and third with none out. Owens grounded to first, but failed to score the run, Barrett popped out and Candelaria escaped.
California finally tied it up in the sixth. Joyner drew a walk and moved up on a groundball. Hurst faced an old Boston nemesis, DH Reggie Jackson, who singled to tie the game. In the seventh, the Angels’ contact hitters displayed some muscle. The diminutive Schofield homered with two outs. After Bob Boone singled, speedy Gary Pettis also went deep. The Angels suddenly had a 4-1 lead.
The Red Sox made a move in the eighth when Barrett led off with a single. Rice drilled out a two-out double that spelled the end of the night for Candelaria. California manager Gene Mauch went to his closer, Donnie Moore, who promptly balked in a run. After issuing a walk to Evans, Moore surrendered a base hit to Rich Gedman that cut the lead to 4-3.
With two runners still on base Moore got the game’s biggest out, when Tony Armas flied out to center. California got an insurance run in the eighth when Jackson drew a walk, went all the way to third on a Boggs error and scored on a sac fly by Jones. Moore closed the ninth without incident and the 5-3 win put the Angels halfway to a pennant.
The significant downside that came out of the game for California was that Joyner would no longer be available. The first baseman and Rookie of the Year suffered a staph infection after Game 2 and while he tried to play in Game 3, it wasn’t working and he was out for the remainder of the ALCS.
The Red Sox turned to Clemens on three days’ rest to even the series. The Angels, in the stronger positon for the series, and having a future Hall of Famer in veteran Don Sutton available, kept on their normal rotation.
Clemens and Sutton traded zeroes for three innings in the prime-time game. In the top of the fourth, Boston missed a chance. Boggs led off with a double and Barrett bunted him up. But a Buckner fly ball wasn’t deep enough and Sutton escaped. The Red Sox got another chance in the sixth and cashed in. Armas started it with a single, Owen dropped down a sac bunt and with two outs, Buckner ultimately redeemed himself with an RBI single.
Sutton left after seven excellent innings and Vern Ruhle came on. But the bottom of the order was causing problems. Owen singled, took second on a groundball out and eventually scored on a base hit from Barrett. Chuck Finley came out of the Angel bullpen, but was let down by a pair of errors that resulted in Barrett scoring. Mauch, emptying his bullpen, to try and keep it close, went to Doug Corbett, who struck with Baylor with two outs and two on.
I still recall this Saturday night. A high school sophomore who was playing poker in a room separate from the TV set, I was walking back and forth and confidently reported to the other teenage card players that “the series is tied.” It would be a premature call.
Clemens, after a magnificent night, gave up a leadoff home run to DeCinces. With one out, consecutive singles from veteran pinch-hitter George Hendrick and Schofield, got the Red Sox ace out of the game. Manager John McNamara went to closer Calvin Schiraldi. Pettis greeted him with an RBI double that made it 3-2 and put runners on second and third.
After an intentional walk to Jones, Schiraldi came up with a big strikeout of Grich that looked ready to save the game. But with two outs, the closer plunked Downing. The score was tied and Reggie was coming to the plate. If nothing else, Schiraldi didn’t let the longtime New England nemesis deliver the final blow and Jackson grounded to second. But it merely delayed what looked like a fatal loss.
Schiraldi was still on the eleventh, as the Boston offense could get nothing going in extra innings. Angels’ catcher Jerry Narron singled and was bunted up by Pettis. Grich redeemed himself with a line drive single to left that won the game and put California on the brink of a pennant. With Witt ready to go on full rest for Sunday afternoon, and Clemens having been beaten twice, there seemed little hope left for the Red Sox.
Boston still came out strong, with Rice singling in the second inning and Gedman hitting a two-out home run. Hurst, on short rest, escaped jam in the innings’ bottom half pitching around a leadoff double by DeCinces and keeping the score 2-0. But the Boston bats fell silent, as Witt began cruising through the lineup. And California cut the lead in half on a solo shot by Boone in the third. They took the lead in the sixth when DeCinces hit a two-out double and Grich homered to make it 3-2.
The Angels appeared to all but sew up the pennant in the seventh. Hendrick legged out an infield hit. After a sac bunt by Boone, Pettis drew a walk and a double by Rob Wilfong put California up 5-2. There were just six outs left and Witt worked the eighth without incident.
Witt took the mound to open the ninth and quickly got into trouble. Buckner singled to center. After Rice struck out, Baylor homered and now it was 5-4. Witt recovered to get Evans to pop out and Angels Stadium was ready to celebrate. With the lefthanded hitting Gedman at the plate, Mauch decided to engage in situational managing and brought in lefty Gary Lucas.
This managerial decision has been the subject of considerable controversy, pulling your ace with one out to go and no one in base. In Mauch’s defense, Gedman had homered earlier and another one would tie the game. And the fact Baylor had already homered this inning suggested Witt was just hanging on. But when Lucas hit Gedman with a pitch, it seemed a useless change.
Mauch summoned the righthanded Moore to face Boston’s Dave Henderson. The count ran 2-2. One strike from elimination, Henderson homered on the next pitch. The Red Sox had a stunning 6-5 lead.
This is the moment when most recollection of the 1986 ALCS basically shuts down and the eventual Boston triumph seemed inevitable. It didn’t actually play out that way on late Sunday afternoon. The Angels rallied against the Red Sox bullpen in the ninth.
Boone led off with a single. Ruppert Jones came in to pinch run for the aging catcher and was bunted to second. McNamara played his own righty-lefty game and removed Bob Stanley, opting for lefty Joe Sambito to face Wilfong. It didn’t work. Wilfong singled and the game was tied. McNamara went back to the pen, going for righty Steve Crawford. He allowed a single to Schofield, sending Wilfong to third with the winning run and only one out. Downing was intentionally walked. DeCinces came to the plate and got a fly ball to right…but not deep enough to score. The agony of the Angels only increased when Grich hit a line drive, but right back at Crawford. The Red Sox had escaped the ninth inning not once, but twice and it was 6-6 as Sunday afternoon wore on.
Boston missed a chance in the tenth, as Rice grounded into a double play with runners on the corners and one out. Moore was still in the game in the top of the eleventh. Baylor was hit by a pitch and Evans singled. Gedman dropped down a bunt and beat it out. The bases were loaded with none out. Henderson—who else—hit a sac fly that made it 7-6. Even though no further damage resulted, this one was finally over. Schiraldi came in for the Red Sox and closed it out.
The Red Sox were flying high as the teams went back east, with a day off on Monday and resuming play on Tuesday. The Angels had to try and reclaim some momentum and they got right at it against Boyd.
After Jones worked a walk, Jackson and DeCinces hit back-to-back doubles for a quick 2-0 lead. But the Red Sox countered with a soft rally. Boggs and Barrett each worked full-count walks off McCaskill. A productive groundout, a passed ball and another productive ground ball tied the game.
In the third inning, Boston leveled McCaskill. Owens and Boggs singled to lead it off. Barrett doubled and Buckner singled to make it 4-2. Barrett tried to score on a groundball to third off the bat of Rice, but was thrown out at the plate. But with runners on first and second, Baylor singled to the opposite field. In an attempt to make another play at home, Joyner’s relay throw went wild and both runs scored, while Baylor went to third. Evans smacked a single to center making it 7-2 and ending McCaskill’s night.
California tried to rally in the fourth, putting the first two men on base. Boyd reached back to strike out Boone and Pettis and there were no runs. The Red Sox added to the lead in the fifth. After Baylor was hit by a pitch, Evans and Gedman singled, setting up an RBI groundball by Henderson. Even though Boggs ultimately killed the rally with a double-play, it wouldn’t really matter. The Angels got a solo home run from Downing in the seventh and an unearned run in the ninth, but even those were sandwiched around a two-run triple by Owen. The final was 10-4 and it was all coming down to a seventh game.
The Red Sox had Clemens available for a third start, while the Angels would turn to Candelaria. Even without Witt, you had still like the pitching option for California. Candelaria had some big-game mojo from 1979 and had pitched a shutout in Game 6 of the World Series in Baltimore, a game his Pirates faced elimination in. But October 15 in Fenway wouldn’t work out quite as well.
In the bottom of the second, an error by Schofield started the rally. It was followed by a base hit from Baylor, a walk to Evans and an RBI groundout from Gedman. With two outs, Boggs slapped a two-run single and it was 3-0.
Boston missed a chance in the third, when a Baylor double keyed a second and third situation with one out. But Evans couldn’t pick up the RBI and Candelaria escaped. But the roof finally fell in on the Angels in the fourth.
A fly ball off the bat of Henderson turned into an error by Pettis and Henderson ended up on third. Owens singled in the run. After a walk and two outs, Rice came to the plate. He smashed a three-run homer sending Fenway into a frenzy and at 7-0, this American League Championship Series was all but over.
Evans tacked on another home run in the seventh and Clemens pitched seven innings of four-hit ball and left after an eighth-inning single that the Angels turned into a meaningless run. The 8-1 final sent the Red Sox to the World Series for the first time since 1975. And it would be another chapter to the Angel history of heartbreak.
Barrett was named ALCS MVP, going 11-for-30. Other good contributors were Owen, whose 9-for-21 was a boon to the lineup out of the 9-hole. Gedman had ten hits and Baylor added nine of his own. On the Angel side, Boone went 10-for-22 and had the team closed it out in Game 5, Witt would almost certainly have been named series MVP.
The most notable struggle came from McCaskill, an integral part of the California rotation all year, but who only worked nine innings combined in his two starts and gave up 13 runs. And the loss of Joyner is a big what-might-have-been for Angels fans.
This American League Championship Series was just one-third of the most incredible October baseball has ever seen. The NLCS provided similar high-stakes drama between the Mets and Astros. And the World Series has a unique place in the game’s history, as it would be Boston’s turn to connect with a heritage of heartbreak, getting to one strike of winning the World Series before a series of unfortunate events, highlighted by a famous error from Buckner, took it away.
Even amidst the ending that Red Sox fans lived with for eighteen years, Henderson still remained a hero in the area for his vital role in the amazing ALCS battle.
Gene Mauch and the California Angels parted ways after a heartbreaking loss in the 1982 American League Championship Series. The Angels promptly fell apart and by 1985 Mauch was back in the fold. He put the Angels back into contention that year and even though the 1986 California Angels again suffered October heartbreak, they first dethroned the defending World Series champions and won the AL West.
The Angels said goodbye to a legend before the season began—Hall of Fame first baseman Rod Carew, one of the great contact hitters and great gentleman of the game stepped down. What no one knew was the rookie Wally Joyner was ready for prime time and Joyner finished with 22 home runs and 100 RBI.
Other offseason changes involved strengthening the bullpen. California signed Donnie Moore and he would assume the closer’s role, with 21 saves and a 2.97 ERA. They also made minor moves for Gary Lucas and Terry Forster, each of whom contributed to what was a deep pen in 1986, with Doug Corbett and young Chuck Finley also helping out.
The ace of the staff though, was 25-year-old power righthander Mike Witt. He made 34 starts, finished with a 2.84 ERA, an 18-10 record and finished third in the Cy Young voting. Kirk McCaskill, also 25-years-old, wasn’t far behind, with 33 starts, a 17-10 record and 3.36 ERA. At the other end of the age spectrum, 41-year-old Don Sutton, with a spot already reserved for him in Cooperstown, went to the post 34 times, won 15 games and finished with a 3.74 ERA.
Even though the back end of the rotation was a liability, veteran lefty John Candelaria was still able to make sixteen starts and finish with a 2.55 ERA. And the depth of the bullpen was able to compensate.
So was the offense, which finished sixth in the American League in runs scored, but was the most prolific in its own Western Division. They did it with patience rather than power. The Angels might have been in the middle of the pack for home runs and near the bottom in doubles, but they drew walks better than any AL team.
Brian Downing, the veteran leftfielder, drew 95 walks. He also had some pop, hitting 20 home runs. Doug DeCinces, the 35-year-old third baseman was the other steady power hitter, with 26 home runs. But with the great Reggie Jackson in decline, hitting only 18 home runs at age 40, the Angels had to be resourceful.
And they were, starting with Reggie himself, who still had an excellent .379 on-base percentage. Speedy centerfielder Gary Pettis stole 50 bases. Ruppert Jones only hit .229, but he used his ability to get walks to turn that into a .339 OBP. Bobby Grich and Rick Burleson, veteran middle infielders that came off the bench, each finished with OBP’s over .350. Dick Schofield, the kid shortstop who got more of the playing time, was a sterling defender.
California was still slow out of the gate, but the weakness of the AL West was a big help. They were able to start 12-7 against divisional foes, and then took two of three from defending AL East champ Toronto, but in the ensuing twenty-one games against AL East teams, the Angels won only seven.
By the time Memorial Day arrived they were 21-22, though only a half-game behind Texasand five AL West rivals were stacked within 2 ½ games of each other. One of those teams was the Kansas City Royals, who had won this division six times the previous ten years, including catching the Angels down the stretch in 1985 and ultimately winning the World Series. If California fans were paranoid about a blue-and-white car in the rearview mirror, you couldn’t blame them.
The early part of June got worse, and after getting crushed 10-2 by the Royals to open a home series, the Angels were 4 ½ games out. They split a pair of 6-5 games over the weekend to stop the bleeding. The first-place Rangers came to town for a three-game set starting on June 16 and the AL West race would not be the same when it was over.
McCaskill took the mound on Monday night to face veteran knuckleballer Charlie Hough. McCaskill was brilliant, but trailing 1-0 in the ninth, it looked like California would waste his outing. Then they got a break. Texas leftfielder Gary Ward made an error on a line drive off the bat of Jack Howell and Howell ended up on third. Joyner’s base hit tied the game and a passed ball put him in scoring position.
After DeCinces struck out and Reggie was intentionally walked, George Hendrick, a power righthanded bat off the bench was at the plate. Hough struck him out, but the knuckler danced away. Joyner, running hard all the way, scored from second on the strikeout and California had an improbable 2-1 win.
The Angels kept the momentum and the pitching going. Witt scattered nine hits in a complete-game shutout on Tuesday, while DeCinces three-run blast in the fifth was the offensive key in a 4-0 win. In the finale, California attacked quickly, with three singles and two walks in the first inning and Rob Wilfong delivering a clutch two-out/two-run single. Sutton made it three straight complete games with a three-hitter. The final was 5-1.
After taking two of three in Kansas City, California made a return trip to Texas. This time it was the offense’s turn to unload and they did just that, with 25 runs in three games, sweeping another series. The Angels led the division by a game on June 25, and even though a sluggish 4-5 stretch briefly knocked them back to second, they responded by sweeping a series in Milwaukee and reclaiming first place on July 7. They would never relinquish it.
That’s what we know today. In the moment, the AL West race was still hot, with California up 1 ½ games on Texas at the All-Star break. And even though Kansas City was flailing at 40-48, 8 ½ games out, no one was going to write them off. And the Angels had to open the second half against AL East teams.
It didn’t go well, with six losses in ten games, but the Rangers were even worse and California expanded their lead to three games. A ten-game road trip against division rivals produced .500 ball and knocked the lead back down to a game and a half.
The decisive push began with a ten-game homestand against weak teams in Seattle, Minnesota and Oakland. The Angels won eight times. Then they beat Detroit four straight, with the last game capped off by an astonishing eight-run rally in the ninth inning. Even more unlikely was that the diminutive Schofield won it with a two-out grand slam off Tiger closer Willie Hernandez, just two years removed from a Cy Young Award.
The 13-12 win came on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend and the Angels were in control with a 5 ½ game lead on Texas and Kansas City having finally fallen by the wayside for good.
Baseball fans could look at the schedule and see that the Angels and Rangers would play seven times in the final ten games. California made sure those games would be largely irrelevant. They swept Kansas City, including an 18-3 shellacking and the lead went soaring to ten games by the time the head-to-head matchups began on the second-to-last Friday of the year. The Angels only needed one more win to clinch.
They didn’t waste team. After trailing 2-0 in the sixth inning, the offense exploded for four runs in the sixth and four more in the seventh. Downing homered twice and drove in five runs. The final was 8-3 and the champagne could flow in Anaheim.
California went on to the ALCS to face Boston. After taking three of the first four games and then leading 5-2 in the ninth inning of Game 5, one of the game’s great collapses occurred. A pair of two-run homers gave the Red Sox the lead. The Angels quickly tied it up and had the bases loaded with one out and the chance to win the pennant anyway. The missed that chance, lost the game and lost the final two in Fenway.
It was a devastating defeat, but shouldn’t take away from what the 1986 California Angels did, in winning 92 games and pulling away from the AL West in September.
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.
The 1982 California Angels did a lot of wheeling and dealing to get ready for the season. After winning the AL West in 1979, the team fell off the radar the next two years. Owner Gene Autry was hungry to get to his first World Series, so his front office went all-in, and it paid off with another division title.
California acquired 34-year-old catcher Bob Boone, a key component of the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies, who had won the World Series. They traded for Tim Foli, the shortstop who started for the Pittsburgh Pirates when they won it all in 1979. The Angels swung another deal for Doug DeCinces, a third baseman who helped the Baltimore Orioles win the American League pennant in ’79. California was not only adding veterans, they were adding winning veterans.
And no one was more associated with winning in October than Reggie Jackson. After five years with the New York Yankees and helping them win three pennants and two World Series—including being a Series hero in 1977—Reggie was on the free agent market prior to the 1982 season. California won the bidding war and brought Jackson west.
These new acquisitions joined a talented everyday lineup. Rod Carew was now 36-years-old at first base, but the best pure contact hitter of his generation could still produce, and he hit .319 in 1982. Brian Downing hit 28 home runs, playing left field and batting leadoff. Fred Lynn had a big year in centerfield, with a .374 on-base percentage/.517 slugging percentage. Bobby Grich was a good hitting second baseman, at .371/.449. And Don Baylor, the DH hit 24 home runs and drove in 98 runs.
It added up to the second-best offense in the American League. And though the pitching staff didn’t have a clear ace, they also finished second in the AL. Geoff Zahn won 18 game with a 3.73 ERA. Ken Forsch won 13 games, and along with Zahn he logged over 200 innings.
Manager Gene Mauch did a good job piecing together the rest of the rotation. He got 16 starts from Bruce Kison, another veteran of the ’79 Pirates, and Kison won 10 games. Steve Renko, a 37-year-old vet, finished 11-6, albeit with a 4.44 ERA. On the other end of the age spectrum, 21-year-old Mike Witt worked 179 innings and went 8-6 at a 3.51 ERA.
The bullpen was lacking in depth, with Andy Hassler and Luis Sanchez having good years, but no real closer ever emerging. Dave Goltz, a former starter, was respectable in middle relief. The staff as a whole was probably an arm short, and the aggressive front office made one more move—at the end of August, they added Tommy John to the rotation. John, who pitched for both the Dodgers and Yankees in their pennant runs over the previous six season, made seven starts for the Angels down the stretch and went 4-2.
California started 10-3 and led by as many as 2 ½ games in April. A stretch of games against the powers of the AL East, including the Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles, produced an 8-8 record and by the time Memorial Day arrived, the Angels were 29-16. They were a half-game back of the Chicago White Sox. The Kansas City Royals, the AL West’s consistent power at this time, were five back, and the Oakland A’s, who had won the division in 1981 were 7 ½ out.
The beginning of June was not kind to Mauch’s team, and they lost seven in a row, although it only cost them a game and a half in the standings. California then won 14 of 20 to again take a three-game lead. The beginning of July was another problem though—eight straight losses, before they righted the ship to sweep the Yankees three straight just prior to the All-Star break.
California went into the break at 49-37, up a game on the Royals, two on the White Sox and four on the surprising Seattle Mariners. Oakland had collapsed. The Angels came quickly out of the gate in the second half and got ahead by as many as four games. Then they lost four of five, and through August and leading up to Labor Day, they fluctuated from up two games to down two games in the AL West race.
The race had essentially narrowed to the Angels and Royals. Chicago was still lurking in early September, at 5 ½ back, while Seattle disappeared. The Angels won eight of thirteen and the White Sox finally faded. California hosted Kansas City on for a three-game set to open the season’s penultimate week, and the race was dead even.
Zahn took the ball on Monday and went toe-to-toe with reliable Kansas City lefty Larry Gura. Zahn worked eight innings, gave up just two runs and Foli hit a big home run in the fifth to break a 1-1 tie. The Angels won 3-2.
One night later it was Forsch and Royal workhorse Dennis Leonard battling. Carew delivered four hits, but the game was still tied 1-1 in the ninth. Kansas City went to their closer, Dan Quisenberry. Three straight singles, off the bats of Boone, Grich and pinch-hitter Daryl Sconiers won the game 2-1.
Wednesday’s finale saw both teams get the bats going. DeCinces homered twice and drove in four runs. Downing had three hits, including his own home run. Carew slapped two more hits. The 8-5 win completed the sweep and gave California a three-game lead with a week and a half left.
The lead was at two games going into the final weekend. California was hosting Texas, while Kansas City was at home against Oakland. Zahn threw a complete-game shutout on Friday night, to clinch a tie and, at worst a Monday playoff game. The Royals also won to keep the race alive.
On Saturday, the Angels trailed 4-3 in the fifth. Goltz came on out of the bullpen and worked 4.1 quality innings. Lynn hit a two-run shot, and with the come-from-behind 6-4 win, California was again the champions of the AL West.
California went on to face Milwaukee in the 1982 ALCS. The Angels won the first two games at home, of what was then a best-of-five round and it appeared that Autry’s long-sought World Series trip was finally at hand. Alas, it was not to be. The Angels lost three straight in Milwaukee, including a gut-wrenching Game 5.
The Angels drifted off the map for the next couple seasons, before returning to contention in 1985, losing a close AL West race to the eventual World Series champion Royals. California won the West in 1986 and again got to within one game of the World Series with three chances to clinch. They found a way to lose this ALCS, to the Boston Red Sox, in even more agonizing fashion than the one of 1982. Not until 2002, did the Angels finally reach the World Series and win it.
The California Angels came into existence in 1961 and like any expansion team, had a troubled early phase of existence. What was more troublesome is that the Angels’ problems continued in the 1970s. Over the period of 1976-78, the club had six managers, all of whom managed a substantial number of games. In the second half of ’78, the team finally got the right guy with Jim Fregosi and the 1979 California Angels rewarded the fans and owner Gene Autry with their first AL West title.
1978 had ended on a good note. Fregosi managed the final 116 games and went 62-54. The Angels made a spirited run at the Kansas City Royals before coming up a short, but the second-place finish was still the best in club history.
California then made a huge splash in the offseason. Just prior to spring training, they dealt a package of four players to the Minnesota Twins to get first baseman Rod Carew. The best pure contact hitter in baseball, Carew won the MVP award in 1977 when he made a run at .400, and he immediately stepped into the Angel lineup and with a .419 on-base percentage in 1979, helped make the Angels the best in the league at getting runners on base.
Carew wasn’t one. Brian Downing, their young catcher, had a .418 OBP, and added a little bit of pop, with a .462 slugging percentage. Rick Miller was in center and posted a .367 OBP. Then there were the power hitters, all of whom were adept at not just going deep, but getting themselves on base regularly.
Bobby Grich hit 30 home runs, finished with 101 RBIs and the second baseman’s OBP was .365. Willie Mays Aikens, a talented young DH, popped 21 home runs and his OBP was .376. And no one was better than Don Baylor. The leftfielder hit 36 home runs, drove in 139 runs, put up a .371 OBP and walked off with the AL MVP award.
It added up to the best offense in the American League. California needed it, because the pitching wasn’t great. Dave Frost and Nolan Ryan led the staff with 16 wins apiece, but neither had a dominant ERA, at 3.57 and 3.60 respectively. Frank Tanana made 17 starts, and the lefty was a big help, with a 3.89 ERA, but the back end, with Jim Barr, Don Aase and Chris Knapp was a serious weak point.
The bullpen was even worse. Mark Clear saved 14 games and the 23-year-old finished with a 3.63 ERA, as he began what would be a respectable big-league career. But there was no depth to speak of.
Fortunately, the other entity there was no depth to speak of it was the AL West. By season’s end, four AL East teams would have better records than anyone in the West, so the Angels had a lower bar to hurdle.
California came strong out of the gate, with a 22-9 start. They were 4 ½ games up in mid-May, before a brief slide at the end of the month left them with a one-game margin on Memorial Day, amidst a packed four team race with the Royals, Twins and Texas Rangers.
The Angels came out of Memorial Day and won 12 of 19, a respectable stretch, but the fact it increased their lead back to five games underscored the divisional weakness. Then they went 5-8 in a stretch of games against the Rangers and Royals to tighten the race back up. A key survival point came in an 18-game schedule stretch against the powers in the AL East, and the Angels were able to hold serve. They went 9-9 in home-and-home series with the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox.
By the All-Star break, California was 55-38, good for a two-game lead over Texas and five over Minnesota. What was most surprising is that Kansas City had slid ten games out. But the Royals weren’t going to roll over and die.
California held serve through three weeks in August, but then managed to lose six of seven against bad AL East teams in the Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians. The Halos briefly slipped a half-game back, before winning the final three games of the series in Cleveland.
The Royals were barreling hard into September, and by Labor Day were within a game and a half, as they sought a fourth straight AL West title. Texas had faded, but Minnesota was still in the picture, three games out. California swept a big series with the Milwaukee Brewers, a team on its way to 95 wins in the AL East, and the Angels nudged their margin back to four and got some breathing room.
On September 17, they lead stood at three games. California arrived in Kansas City for a four-game series to open the week.
Knapp was crushed in the opener, a 16-4 loss, as the Royals kept their momentum going. Then they scored four runs in the first inning in Tuesday’s second game. At this point, Frost settled down and delivered one of the clutch pitching performances of the season. He worked into the ninth, Kansas City never scored again, and the Angels rallied to a 6-4 win.
Ryan got the ball on Wednesday and lost to reliable Royal lefty Larry Gura in another 6-4 game. In the Thursday finale, Baylor hit an early home run and it was tied 2-2 in the seventh. The Angels then unloaded, scoring six times and Downing hitting a three-run shot. The 11-6 win ensured California left town with their lead still intact at three games.
The following Monday began the final week of the season, the lead was still at three games and Kansas City made their return trip to Anaheim. Minnesota was four games out, but with the Royals and Angels playing head-to-head it would take the equivalent of an inside straight for the Twins to pull it out.
Monday night saw a Ryan-Gura rematch, and Nolan fell behind 3-0 early, with a couple defensive miscues bearing a big portion of responsibility. The big flamethrower settled down though, and Ford became the hero of the game. The rightfielder hit a two-run single with two outs in the third, then hit sac flies for runs in the fifth and seventh, as the Angels won 4-3.
On Tuesday, the Twins lost, so as the game progressed on the West Coast, the Angels knew they could clinch with a win. Tanana was on the mound and he met the moment, throwing a complete-game five-hitter and it was time to start the party.
California finished the season 88-74, which in the era when divisions had seven teams apiece, was a low record for a first-place team. But it was good enough, and that was all anyone in SoCal wanted after waited seventeen years.
The Angels met the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS and turned in a credible effort against the 102-win Birds, but the California problems in the bullpen and with rotation depth did them in. They lost the first game in ten innings, and the second when a rally from 9-1 down came up one run short with the bases loaded. An exciting win in a must-win Game 3 (the LCS was best-of-five then) kept them alive, but Knapp was on the mound for Game 4 and he was rocked. The season was over.
Even if the season was over, California was finally a champion. They would make it back to the ALCS in 1982, with a lot of these everyday players. The pursuit of a World Series would be heartbreaking—that ’82 ALCS saw the Angels blow a 2-0 series lead and lose three straight. They lost a crusher in the 1986 ALCS. Finally, in 2002, with the franchise name changed to “Anaheim Angels”, and managed by Mike Scoscia, the Halos won it all. It was the culmination of what began in 1979.