09 May 2007

Royal legacy #3 -- the 1977 Royals (102-60)

I originally kicked around the thought of pulling an unexpected twist here and putting the '80 World Series Royals behind the 102-win '77 Royals, but how can I put a team that vanquished the Yankee horde and made it to the ultimate baseball stage behind a 102-win team, albeit great, that once again choked under pressure from the evil Steinbrennerites? In the end, I can't, so the '77 team goes here and the two World Series Royals teams are the only ones left in our 38-team countdown. The 1977 Royals were the culmination of the previous several years of work by several Royals staffers, including GMs Ced Tallis and Joe Burke, owner Ewing Kauffman and manager Whitey Herzog, who had guided KC to a second-place divisional finish in '75 and had broken through in '76 with KC's first AL West title. The '76 season had ended in utter disappointment, however, as a Chris Chambliss walkoff homer (of course, the term "walkoff" wasn't used back then, it was just a game and series-ending longball) ended the season in the deciding game 5 of the ALCS. Enter the new season of 1977 -- expectations were high but the 90-72 record of '76 left some room for improvement with a good team in place. Unfortunately, despite the heights reached by Kansas City over the first 162 games, not much had changed when the Yankees loomed in the ALCS.

The '77 Royals were built on a good rotation, an excellent bullpen and a solid group of regulars on offense with potent bats off the bench. The pitching staff was among the best, if not THE best, in the AL as the Royals led the league in ERA (3.52), wins, saves (42), hits allowed, runs allowed (657) and HR allowed. The te
am's 15 shutouts were third in the league and the team's 850 Ks were fourth. The two categories in which the team wasn't in the top five in the American League were walks allowed (499, sixth) and complete games (41, seventh), but both were high enough to complement the rest of what the staff brought and the complete game total was strengthened by the performance of the Royals' bullpen. The team's offense was, as Whiteyball made it's impact, based on speed and taking advantage of Royals' Stadium's turf and welcoming power alleys. The offense led the AL in doubles and triples while finishing in the top five in steals (170, second), strikeouts (third fewest), slugging (.436, fourth), batting (.277, fifth), runs scored (822, fifth) and hits (fifth). The Royals were sixth in two other key categories -- OBP (.339) and HR (146) -- with a ninth-place finish in walks drawn.

As pointed out at the end of the '76 post (#4 on the countdown), GM Burke didn't stand pat after falling just short in 1976. At the winter meetings he traded three players to Milwaukee for SP Jim Colborn an
d C Darrell Porter in a move that would have great impact in '77. Two days later he sent a minor-leaguer to the Mets in a 3-way trade that reaped 1B Pete LaCock. The only other addition that had any impact in '77 was the signing of free-agent OF Joe Lahoud in March. The '77 draft year was, unfortunately, a wasted year for Burke. The team's best pick of the June draft was 19th round selection P Renie Martin, who would contribute a couple years of decent relief from the '80s before leaving in the trade for P Vida Blue. The Royals passed up P Scott Sanderson in round 2, SS Ozzie Smith in round 3, then-SS Tim Raines in round 4, OF Jesse Barfield in round 9 and, later, OF Chili Davis.

Brett, McRae and Cowens were the names to know on the Royals' offense in '77, although they got a helping hand from a good supporting cast. George Brett played average D at third while leading the team with a .312 BA and .905 OPS. Brett's batting and on-base numbers weren't as good as his awesome '76 season stats were but he outslugged his previous year's totals with a .532 SLG, 32 doubles, 13 triples, 22 HR and third-best on the team 88 RBI. He led the team with 105 RS, stole 14 bases and drew more than twice as many walks (55) as he struck out (24). Not far behind were McRae and Cowens as both played every game to become two of three Royals to ever do so over a 162-game season (Beltran in '0
2 is the other). McRae was rough in the OF in 47 games there but made up for it by hitting .298 with an .881 OPS (.515 SLG), 104 RS, 54 doubles (to lead the AL and set a team record that still stands), 11 triples, 21 HR, 86 XBH (also leading the AL and another team record that still stands), 330 total bases (fourth all-time among Royals and first at the time), 92 RBI (second best on the team to Cowens), 18 SB, 13 HBP (leading the AL) and 59 walks compared to 43 Ks. Cowens was slightly above average in RF and chipped in 14 assists while matching Brett at .312 with an .886 OPS (.525 SLG), 98 RS, 32 doubles, 14 triples (sixth all-time among Royals, tied Brett's team record at the time), 23 HR (tying Mayberry for the team lead), 112 RBI (easily best on the team, seventh all-time among Royals, team record at the time) and 16 SB. Darrell Porter made a splash as a new Royal by hitting .275 with an .805 OPS, 21 doubles, 16 HR and 60 RBI with unspectacular D at catcher; the ever-consistent CF Amos Otis was again the team's best OF and had 10 assists there while hitting .251 with a .775 OPS, 85 RS, 20 doubles, 17 HR, 78 RBI and 23 SB; corner OF Tom Poquette played error-free but subpar-in-range defense while hitting .292 with a .749 OPS and 23 doubles; and 1B Big John Mayberry had a down year by hitting only .230 with a .737 OPS, 22 doubles, 23 HR, 82 RBI and 83 walks with 86 Ks. It was an unfortunate way for Mayberry to end his run as a Royal as the team sold his rights to Toronto in April '78. Even the two lightest-hitting regulars for KC made their mark. SS Freddie Patek hit .262 with a .688 OPS and 26 doubles but led the AL with 53 SB (sixth all-time among Royals, a team record at the time) with so-so D at short; and 2B Frank White only hit .245 with a .626 OPS (.284 OBP) but won his first Gold Glove with a .989 FP and hit 21 doubles with 23 SB. The bench was led by 1B/fourth OF LaCock, who hit .303 with a .753 OPS in 88 games (218 AB) with decent defense; backup C John Wathan, who outshone Porter defensively while hitting .328 with an .817 OPS in 55 games; and OF Lahoud, who stunk defensively but hit .262 with a .795 OPS in 34 games. OF Joe Zdeb played in 105 games and hit .297 with a .720 OPS, 21-year-old OF Willie Wilson hit .324 in 13 games and the rest of the bench was littered with sub-par performances from Cookie Rojas, Buck Martinez and IFs Bob Heise and Dave Nelson.

From a pitching standpoint, '77 was Dennis Leonard's year as he was 20-12 (in a 3-way tie for the AL lead in wins, fourth all-time in that season stat among Royals and the first of three 20-win seasons in his career) with a 3.04 ERA, 1.11 WHIP (ninth all-time among Royals), 244 Ks (a team record that still stands), 21 complete games (another still-standing team record), 5 shutouts (second only to Roger Nelson's '72 in team hist
ory), and 1 save in 38 games (37 starts) and 292 IP (another team record at the time that he broke in '78). Milwaukee import Jim Colborn was 18-14 with a no-hitter May 14 at home versus Texas (the first pitcher not named Steve Busby to hurl a no-no for KC), and had a 3.62 ERA, 6 complete games, a shutout (the no-no) and team-worst 22 HRA in 36 games (35 starts) and 239 IP. Paul Splittorff was 16-6 for the best winning percentage on the team among regular starters with a 3.69 ERA, 6 complete games and 2 shutouts in 37 starts and 239 IP; and SP Andy Hassler was 9-6 with a 4.20 ERA, 3 CG and a shutout in 29 games (27 starts) and 156 IP. Usual reliever Marty Pattin was 10-3 with a 3.58 ERA and 4 CG in 31 games (10 starts) and 128 IP. Lefties Steve Mingori and Larry Gura were the cream of the Royals' bullpen in '77 as Mingori was 2-4 with 4 saves and a 3.09 ERA in 43 games and 64 IP and Gura was 8-5 with 10 saves and a 3.13 ERA, complete game and shutout in 52 games (6 starts) and 106 IP. Reliever Mark Littell was 8-4 with 12 saves and a 3.61 ERA (and 106 Ks to lead the bullpen guys) in 48 games (5 starts) and 104 IP and "closer" Doug Bird was 11-4 with 14 saves and a 3.88 ERA in 53 games (5 starts) and 118 IP.

For being the most successful team in wins and losses in team history, the Royals' journey to a division title in '77 wasn't all smooth sailing. The Royals were still low in the division race in June and didn't really grab firm hold of the division lead until late August. An unbelievable 25-5 September record (with a 16-game winning streak as part of it) was what propelled the Royals to their best record ever as the Royals played better-than-.600 ball from July on. The season got off to a good start as the Royals started 4-0 but were 7-8 thereafter
in April to finish the month 1/2 a game back of first. A 4-game skid in early May dropped KC to 4 games back and Colborn's no-hitter May 14 didn't seem to spark the team as the Royals dropped 8 of 10 after the feat to fall 7 1/2 games out and 4 games under .500. A 3-game surge in mid-June got KC back to .500 at 31-31 and the Royals took 10 of 13 to move into third place. In early July the engine started to run smoothly as a 4-game win streak moved KC to 8 games over .500 and KC took 13 of 15 around the all-star break, including a sweep of the Yankees in KC, to get within 2 games of the first-place White Sox. July ended on a sour note, however, as the White Sox took 3 of 4 from the Royals in Comiskey to take a 5 1/2 game lead into August. The Royals got revenge the next week, however, as a 5-game winning streak included a 3-game sweep of Chicago in Royals Stadium (with Mayberry hitting for the cycle in the Aug. 5 series opener) to move KC within 1 1/2 games of the division leaders at 61-45. The real moving began August 17 when a win over the Indians quietly began a 10-game win streak and 35-4 run that is unrivaled in team history. The initial 10-game surge included sweeps of Cleveland, Boston, Baltimore and Milwaukee to move KC 3 games ahead of the Twins and White Sox. A 1-3 blip on the radar was then followed by a 16-game win streak with sweeps of Milwaukee, Seattle, Minnesota and Oakland to blow the division race open to a 10 1/2 game lead on the ChiSox. The streak was snapped by Seattle on Sept. 16 but then the Royals ran off 8 more wins with sweeps of Minnesota and California to improve to 99-55 and clinch the AL West crown. A 3-5 record in the last 8 games including a 4-game sweep by Oakland cost the Royals an even better record than they ended up with, but KC closed out the season with a complete-game shutout win by Leonard, 2-0 over California, to pick up his 20th victory. Meanwhile, in the AL East, New York found the going a little tougher, even though the Yankees won 100 games, and the Bronx Bombers won the division by 2 1/2 games over Baltimore and Boston to set up the ALCS rematch versus Kansas City. The teams had gone 5-5 head-to-head during the season. The Royals were 55-26 at home and 47-34 on the road in '77 with 51 wins in both halves of the season. The team was clutch with a 31-13 record in 1-run games and 9-6 extra-inning record. With the record win total, 1.85 million fans came to Royals Stadium in '77 for third in the AL.

Kansas City had everything going for it as the ALCS opened in Yankee Stadium Oct. 5. The team had put together an unbelievable finish to capture the division crown while the Yankees had had to fight off the Orioles and Red Sox just to win the AL East. That was exactly the way game 1 played out as the Royals jumped all over Yankee starter Don Gullett. Freddie Patek walked to start the game and Hal McRae homered to make it 2-0. Patek hit a 2-run double in the 2nd and John Mayberry hit a 2-run homer off Dick Tidrow in the 3rd. Paul Splittorff got the game 1 start and his only misstep was a 2-run homer by Thurman Munson in the 3rd. An Al Cowens homer in the 8th provided some insurance and Doug Bird polished off the win. Ron Guidry took the mound in game 2 vs. Hassler and the Royals had a 1-0 lead on a Patek sac fly but Yankee DH Cliff Johnson homered and Bucky Dent drove in a run to give New York the lead. The Royals tied it in the 6th but Littell allowed 3 runs (only 1 earned thanks to a Brett error) in the bottom of the inning and Guidry too
k it from there with the complete-game 6-2 win. It was Dennis Leonard's turn to step up in game 3 back in KC as Patek and Cowens gave the Royals a 2-0 lead and a 2-run Amos Otis double in the 6th made it 5-1 and Leonard had a complete game in a mirror image of game 2 with a 6-2 victory that left the Royals a win away from their first World Series. Herzog handed Larry Gura the ball for the game 4 start in front of 41,000 fans at Royals Stadium, but Gura unfortunately didn't have his best stuff. The Yankees scored 1 in the 1st, 2 in the 2nd and Gura left with 2 on and none out in the 3rd as Marty Pattin came in got out of the jam with only 1 more run in to make it 4-0 NY. KC did put up a fight as two triples helped push home 2 runs in the 3rd but errors by Patek and Mayberry helped lead to a 5th Yankee run in the 4th. The Royals scored 2 in the bottom of the inning off Ed Figueroa and Tidrow to cut it to 5-4 but the Royals couldn't get the equalizer. New York got an insurance run in the 9th and the Royals went down in order as New York forced a decisive game 5. Cy Young winner Sparky Lyle pitched 5 1/3 innings of 2-hit shutout ball to pick up the win and save the Yankees' bacon. Another 41,000 turned out for game 5 the next night and the game would be even more excruciating for Royals fans as Guidry and Splittorff faced off. Both teams had controversy ongoing heading into the game as Mayberry sat out for KC with a "toothache" and NY manager Billy Martin benched Reggie Jackson for the game. The Royals weren't fooled by Guidry this time as Brett legged out an RBI triple in the 1st and got into a scrap with Yankee 3B Graig Nettles, with both benches clearing but no one getting ejected. A Cowens ground out scored Brett to make it 2-0 KC and, although New York scored 1 in the 3rd, the Royals kept pace with a Cowens RBI single to chase Guidry for Mike Torrez. The 3-1 lead held into the 8th as Splittorff had kept the Yankees at bay. He was pulled by Herzog for Doug Bird after giving up a leadoff single in the 8th and Jackson came in and came through with a clutch 1-out RBI single to cut the lead to 3-2. With the entire season down to one inning, Herzog didn't mess around as Leonard came out to start the 9th but choked in giving up a single and walk to bring in Gura, who gave up a game-tying RBI single. Littell was the next in line and gave up a sac fly and a run on a Brett error before getting out of the inning with the shellshocked Royals down, 5-3. Frank White tried to get a rally started with a 1-out single but Patek grounded into a double play off Lyle to end the game and the Royals' season. Lyle picked up his 2nd win of the series while Leonard took the loss. Several Royals had pulled their weight at the plate as McRae hit .444, Patek hit .389, Porter hit .333 and Brett hit .300. Cowens only hit .263 but did come through with 5 RBI. Mayberry pretty much signed his walking papers, unfortunately, by hitting .167 and sitting out game 5, and Otis, who unfortunately had missed the '76 ALCS with a game 1 ankle injury, hit only .125 in his first chance at the Yankees. Hassler and Gura had the worst series of any of the pitchers with losses and ERAs of 4.76 and 18.00. Leonard's game 5 performance put a tough finish to a series that had been marked by his big game 3 performance while Pattin and Splittorff also pulled their weight.

After the season, Burke cut loose a couple players as 2B Cookie Rojas was let go and reliever Mark Littell and C Buck Martinez were shipped to St. Louis for reliever Al Hrabosky. Nothing else w
as done, however, as Burke decided to keep the core intact and that decision paid off in a third straight AL West title in '78 with, again, a disappointing ending in the playoffs, this time in a Yankee sweep. A second-place finish in '79 would help cost Herzog his job as manager and new manager Jim Frey would lead the team's resurgence as a new decade dawned in 1980. The '80s would start off well in KC and peak in '85 but not all went as well as the late '70s had.

1977 Pipeline Royals MVP -- Hal McRae and Al Cowens. A truly historic season for Hal, and Al should be recognized for his play in both the season and postseason. Brett also makes a very, very strong case here.

1977 Pipeline Royals LVP -- Andy Hassler, more by default than anything, as he was the weakest of a good starting rotation and didn't step up in the postseason.

Here's the '77 Royals.

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