02 May 2007

Royal legacy #4 -- the 1976 Royals (90-72)

The bicentennial summer of '76 was historic not only for its marking of the 200th birthday of the United States, but also as the summer the Royals broke through and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. After the usual growing pains as an expansion team, the Royals had made expansion history by competing in their third season in '71, regressed in '72 to fourth and competed again under new manager Jack McKeon in '73, only to finish second to Oakland. A sub-.500 1974 season combined with an iffy '75 start had cost McKeon his job and Whitey Herzog kept the team in the division race in '75, only to fall short in second by 7 games, again to the A's. With Oakland shipping Reggie Jackson out via trade with Baltimore as Charlie O. Finley was in sell mode (he also sold C Ray Fosse to Cleveland) and the Athletics' pitching staff not quite as solid as it was in '75, the door was open for Kansas City and Herzog would help lead the Royals through with 4 good months that built a double digit division lead before the A's made a late surge to make the Royals hang on. The AL West title put KC in the playoffs in a best-of-5 ALCS versus the New York Yankees and the series would create one of the best rivalries in baseball in the late '70s.

The Royals were among the league's elite in both pitching and hitting in '76, as the team was top five in the AL at the plate in doubles (first), triples (first), batting (.269, second to Minnesota), OBP (.328, second again to the Twins), steals (second to Oakland), hits (third), strikeouts (third fewest), slugging (.371, fourth) and runs scored (713, fourth). The only lacking areas were walks (eighth) and HR (11th, thanks to Royals Stadium). Pitching was no different as the team didn't lead in any category but was near the top in many, including ERA (3.21, second to the Yankees), saves (35, third), hits allowed (third), HR allowed (third) and runs allowed (611, fourth). Royals pitchers were sixth in walks allowed, seventh in Ks, eighth in shutouts (12) and ninth in complete games (41).

After making a run but falling short in '75, GM Joe Burke didn't really change a great deal of the team going into '76. Harmon Killebrew and Vada Pinson were let go at the end of their careers, Burke swapped minor-league OF Rodney Scott to Montreal for C Bob Stinson, who was solid in '76 before going to Seattle in the expansion draft, and made the big move in May by trading backup C Fran Healy to New York for P Larry Gura, who would be good in '76 but better in the rotation from '78 to '82. P Andy Hassler, a July pickup from the Angels, pitched well down the stretch as another feather in Burke's cap in '76. The 1976 draft year was pretty uneventful for Burke and the Royals. KC picked OF Hubie Brooks in the first round of the January secondar
y draft but didn't sign him and passed on P John Tudor later in that draft. June's big get in the draft was 15th rounder OF Ken Phelps, who didn't end up hitting the majors for good until '83 with the Mariners after getting traded in '82. The Royals passed up Mike Scioscia, Bruce Hurst, Alan Trammell and Mike Scott for P Ben Grzybek in round 1, Rickey Henderson and Jack Morris in round 4 for OF Thomas Close, and Wade Boggs for 3B Darrell Vosejpka in round 7. It was another draft Joe Burke probably would have left off the resumé.

If 1975 was George Brett's breakout season, '76 was his first superstar season as he and Hal McRae romped through the league's pitchers. Brett led the AL in batting (for his first title there), hits, total bases, triples and singles while McRae reigned in on-base percentage, on-base plus slugging and was second to Brett in batting. Brett hit .333 (fourth all-time among Royals, first at the time), with an .839 OPS (fourth in the AL), 94 RS, 215 hits (second all-time among Royals, first at the time, only eclipsed by Willie Wilson in '80), 34 doubles, 14 triples (sixth all-time among Royals, first at the time), 7 HR, 67 RBI and 21 SB along with rangy but not great defense. His 160 singles is also second only to Wilson's '80 in Royals annals. McRae, meanwhile, played 31 games of sub-par D in left but made up for it by hitting .332 (sixth all-time among Royals, second to Brett then), with an .868 OPS (.407 OBP is ninth all time among Royals, OPS+ of 154 is seventh all-time among Royals and was third then behind two Mayberry seasons), 75 RS, 34 doubles, 5 triples, 8 HR, 73 RBI and 22 SB. Even with those two sets of stats, Brett and McRae were arguably not the most prolific run producers on the team. CF Amos Otis played sparkling
D, hit .279 with a .785 OPS, scored 93 runs, cranked an AL-best 40 doubles, hit 2 triples and 18 HR (leading the team in longballs) and drove home 86 runs with 26 SB. 1B John Mayberry had a down-year in averages by hitting only .232 with a .664 OPS but scored 76 runs, hit 22 doubles and 13 HR, drove home 95 runs to lead the team and drew 82 walks. He also played great D at first for 160 games and only missed one game all season. LF Tom Poquette was passable defensively and hit .302 with a .791 OPS, 18 doubles and 10 triples; RF Al Cowens played solid D with 13 outfield assists and hit .265 with a .639 OPS, 71 RS, 23 doubles, 6 triples, 59 RBI and 23 SB; SS Freddie Patek hit .241 with a .624 OPS, 19 doubles, 51 SB (eighth all-time among Royals, second at the time to AO in '71) and about average D at short; and C Buck Martinez hit .228 with a .625 OPS and 13 doubles. He and 2B Frank White were the worst of the regulars as White provided adequate D at second but hit only .229 with a .570 OPS, 17 doubles, 6 triples and 20 SB. The bench was led by Burke pickup Stinson, who had a worse fielding percentage than Martinez at backstop but hit .263 with a .677 OPS, scored more runs and drew more walks in 16 less games than Buck. Rookie catcher John Wathan debuted with a .643 OPS in 42 ABs and fourth OF Wohlford played about average D while hitting .249 with a .621 OPS, 10 doubles and 22 SB in 107 games and 293 ABs. Other than that, guys like 2B Dave Nelson, IF Cookie Rojas, Jamie Quirk, and 1B Tony Solaita didn't provide much on either side of the ball off the bench.

The '76 Royals pitching staff included a solid rotation backed by a great bullpen, for the most part. Fitzm
orris helped lead the way with a 3.06 ERA, 15-11 record, 8 complete games, 2 shutouts and only 6 HR allowed in 35 games (33 starts) and 220 IP; Doug Bird was 12-10 with 2 saves, a 3.37 ERA, 2 complete games, a shutout, a 1.12 WHIP and a 1.41 BB/9 to make him the answer to an obscure Royals trivia question as the pitcher with the best season BB/9 in team history. He had 107 Ks with only 31 walks in 39 games (27 starts) and 197 IP but did allow a team high 17 HR. Dennis Leonard was 17-10 with 16 CG (fifth all-time among Royals), 2 shutouts, 16 HRA and 150 Ks in 35 games (34 starts) and 259 IP. The only lagger was Paul Splittorff, who had an 11-8 record and 3.97 ERA with 5 complete games and a shutout but a 1-1 BB/K ratio and 11 HRA in 26 games (23 starts) and 158 IP. Hassler came in in July and provided 19 games (14 starts) of a 5-6 record, 2.89 ERA, 4 CG and 1 shutout in 99 IP; the toll of the three voluminous prior seasons on Steve Busby's arm was great as he pitched only 71 innings in '76 and was 3-3 with a 4.40 ERA and a WHIP in the 1.50 area in 13 starts; and Marty Pattin was solid in both the rotation and the pen despite an 8-14 record. Pattin had 5 saves, a 2.49 ERA, 4 CG and 1 shutout in 44 games (15 starts) and 141 IP. The bullpen was led by Pattin and closer Mark Littell, who was 8-4 with 16 saves and a 2.08 ERA and only 1 HRA in 60 games and 104 IP. Steve Mingori was outstanding for a fourth straight season with KC as he was 5-5 with 10 saves and a 2.32 ERA in 55 games and 85 IP; and Gura was good with a 2.30 ERA, 4-0 record, 1 save, 1 CG and 1 shutout despite a K/BB ratio around 1-1 in 20 games (2 starts) and 62 IP. The two bad seeds in the bullpen were Tom Hall with a 1-1 record, 1 save and 4.45 ERA in 31 games and 30 IP and Tom Bruno with a 6.75 ERA and 1-0 record in 12 games and 17 IP.

The Royals would ride Whiteyball to a firm hold on the division lead starting in late May and the team's performance would culminate in a double digit lead in late August before rough waters in September and October almost cost KC the division title. A 5-7 April had the Royals in the middle of the pack entering May, but the Royals took 3 of 5 from the Yankees in the early going and took 10 of 11 from division foes in mid-May to stake a 1 1/2 game lead over the Rangers. A 5-game winning streak in early June increased the lead to 3 1/2 games and Texas kept pace at that deficit despite a season-best 7-game win streak later in the month. The loss of 7 of 8 shortly thereafter, including 2 to the Rangers, cut the lead to 2 games but KC finished June at 44-27 -- 3 1/2 games up on the Rangers and 9 1/2 up on Oakland. The Royals took 3 of 4 in Yankee Stadium in early July and 5 of 6 from Boston in the middle of the month extended the lead to 10 1/2 games over both the fading Rangers and the A's. The month of July ended with a 9 game lead over Oakland but a 5-game surge in early August extended the lead to 12 games. The Royals ended August in the midst of a 5-game slide that cut the lead to 6 games over the A's and a 5-13 stretch to start September cut the lead down to 3 1/2 games. A 5-game winning streak late in the month stretched the lead back to 7 but the Royals lost 2 of 3 at home versus Oakland, dropped 2 of 3 at Texas to cut the lead to 4 1/2 games and then dropped another 2 of 3 at Oakland. The one win, in the series finale -- a 4-0 complete game shutout by Larry Gura -- was a big one, however, as i
t gave the Royals a 3 1/2 game lead with only 3 games left and clinched the division title. The Royals were lucky as they got swept in the final series with Minnesota, but Oakland could only take 1 of 3 from California so wouldn't have factored into the final day anyway.

The first Royals division title in the AL West pushed KC into an AL Championship Series versus the New York Yankees, who rode a killer lineup and great bullpen to a 97-62 record and 10 1/2 game win in the AL East over Baltimore. Game 1 in Royals Stadium was closely fought but Catfish Hunter held the Royals to only 1 run on 5 hits in a complete game 4-1 win. The series got off to a rough start as Larry Gura gave up 2 runs in the 1st thanks in part to a George Brett error and Amos Otis tweaked his ankle in the bottom of the 1st to lead off the game for KC. The Royals only stranded 2 in the loss as Thurman Munson caught Brett and Patek stealing. The only run came after an Al Cowens triple to lead off the 8th but the Royals didn't put up much of a fight late. LF Roy White had 2 RBI in the win for New York on a 9th inning double. KC bounced back in game 2 to win, 7-3, behind 5 2/3 IP of solid relief from Splittorff in place of SP Denni
s Leonard, who gave up 3 ER on 6 hits and 2 BB over 2 1/3 IP. Despite not having Otis, the Royals jumped in front with 2 in the 1st off eventual losing pitcher Ed Figueroa but watched New York take a 3-2 lead off Leonard. Brett led off the 6th with a triple and scored on a Mayberry single before Poquette doubled Mayberry home to make it 4-3. The Royals rallied for 3 in the 8th as Splittorff held the Yankees in check for only 4 hits and 2 walks over his stint. Steve Mingori stranded 2 in the 9th to end it. Poquette was 2-3 with 2 RBI and a stolen base and Buck Martinez also drove in 2 runs in the win. McRae was the only Royal not to get a hit. Game 3 in Yankee Stadium bounced back the Yankees way in a 5-3 loss to New York. Otis was again on the shelf but the Royals scored all 3 of their runs in the 1st on 3 hits off SP Dock Ellis. The Yankees got to SP Andy Hassler for 2 in the 4th on a 2-run homer by Chris Chambliss and the Yankees took control in the 6th as Hassler was pulled for Pattin with 2 on and no outs, Pattin intentionally walked a batter and then was pulled for Hall, who gave up 2 runs before giving way to Mingori, who gave up an RBI double and was pulled for Littell, who got out of the inning (a Buddy Bell inning by Whitey). The Royals stranded 1 over the last 3 innings as Hassler got the loss, Ellis got the win and Sparky Lyle picked up the save. Brett was 2-3 with an RBI in the loss. With their backs against the wall in game 4, the Royals stepped up with a 7-4 win over Hunter and the Yankees. The Royals pasted Hunter for 5 ER on 5 hits and a walk over 3 IP and, while Gura only lasted 2 IP and gave up 2 ER on 6 hits, Doug Bird provided 4 2/3 IP of good relief and Mingori finished the game for the save. KC took a 3-0 lead on a 2-out rally in the 2nd but watched Graig Nettles homer off Gura to cut the lead to 3-2 in the bottom of the inning. An RBI triple by Jamie Quirk in the 4th chased Hunter and RP Dick Tidrow gave up another run to make it 5-2. The Royals padded the lead with a Quirk sac fly in the 6th and got an RBI double from Patek in the 8th as Bird and Mingori held off New York for the win. Bird got the win and Hunter got the loss. Nettles was 2-4 with 3 RBI for New York while Patek was 3-4 for KC with 3 RBI, Quirk was 1-3 with 2 RBI and McRae and Rojas had 2-hit games. That win set up a memorable game 5 that has gone down in history for two events -- the Chambliss walk-off shot and Freddie Patek crying on the bench after the game. After beating Hunter in game 4, the Yankees sent Figueroa to the mound in game 5 despite getting his beating in game 2, and the Royals again went to work. Mayberry cranked a 2-run homer in the 1st but Dennis Leonard didn't get an out as Herzog used the quick hook to put in Split after the Yankees had scored a run without making an out off Leonard. The Yankees tied the game but Buck Martinez singled home a run in the 2nd to give the Royals the lead again. Splitorff gave up 2 in the 3rd to give New York a 4-3 lead and Pattin stranded the bases loaded for the Yankees in the 4th to keep it that way. Andy Hassler came in for the 5th and got touched up for 2 runs in the 6th on 3 hits and a Brett error as the Yankees made it 6-3. Figueroa was in line for the win after getting pulled for Grant Jackson with 1 on and none out in the 8th but Jackson gave up a Wohlford single and then a 3-run homer to Brett (redeemed for the error) to tie the game. Mark Littell, who had entered the game in the 7th, set the Yanks down in order in the 8th and, after the Royals stranded 2 in the top of the 9th, Littell gave up the walkoff homer to Chambliss to lead off the bottom of the 9th and bedlam ensued. Yankee fans rushed the field as Chambliss circled the bases and nobody knows if he ever touched home plate. The dramatic ending was a stomach punch for KC to end the season so close to a pennant, but I doubt KC would have done any better than the Yankees did in getting swept by the Big Red Machine in the World Series. Brett stepped up by hitting .444 in the series while Patek hit .389 and Martinez hit .333. Otis' injury hurt the team as Poquette hit only .188 but did have 4 RBI. McRae, Cowens, and Wohlford hit under .200 while Mayberry hit only .222. Chambliss and Munson killed KC with BAs of .524 and .435 in the series. Leonard carried a 19.29 ERA in the series and Littell's served up homer to Chambliss that has made him somewhat of an undeserved goat in KC history was his only ER of the series. As noted previously, he gave up 1 HR in all 60 games he pitched in in '76, and that was to Detroit's Pedro Garcia in a mop up stint. Littell, Splittorff and Bird all carried sub-2 ERAs in the series.

After the season, Burke watched OF Ruppert Jones and P Al Fitzmorris go in the expansion draft but swung a big deal in December by picking up C Darrell Porter and P Jim Colborn from Milwaukee for Jim Wohlford, Jamie Quirk and Bob McClure in a trade that would help up through '81. Burke also picked up 1B Pete LaCock from the Cubs for a minor-leaguer and LaCock would end up taking John Mayberry's place in the lineup in '78 when Big John's rights were sold to Toronto. Herzog and the Royals would put '76 behind them to the winningest season in Royals history in '77 but the same postseason demons that hurt KC in '76 would revisit with another memorable game 5 in 1977, this time in Royals Stadium, however, versus the Yankees. It w
ould not be until '80 that the Royals would finally get the best of Steinbrenner's boys.

1976 Pipeline Royals MVP -- George Brett. An all-around great season followed by great batting in the playoffs. His 8th inning homer in game 5 ranks right with anything else as one of the biggest moments in postseason Royals history.

1976 Pipeline Royals LVP -- I kind of hate to do it, but I've gotta go with Frank White. Solid D, but his bat was a hole in the lineup and he did next to nothing in the postseason. He wasn't the player he was developing into, so it's a tough choice but White gets the unfortunate nod.

Here's the '76 Royals.

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