“Royals World Series”: 1985 vs. 1989 (Frank White Divisional Series Game 1)

So now that we are out of the Wild Card round for both the George Brett and Frank White leagues, we’re moving onto the Divisional Series. We will start with the 2-3 matchup in the Frank White league, which pits the 1985 World Series champions against a 1989 Royals club that finished with 92 wins.

1989 Kansas City Royals (92-70, 2nd in the AL West)

The 1989 Kansas City Royals suffered from bad luck playing in the wrong division. The Royals, despite winning 92 games, finished seven games behind a juggernaut 99-win Oakland Athletics team that not only won the World Series in four games over their Bay Area rival, the San Francisco Giants, but also provided the inspiration for this Lonely Island masterpiece which is on Netflix:

However, though the Royals didn’t make the playoffs and ceded the West to the Athletics, Kansas City was one of the more entertaining clubs in 1989. First off, while Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire led their own Bash Brothers renaissance in the East Bay, Kansas City, managed by John Wathan this season, was treated with the supreme multi-tool duo of George Brett and Bo Jackson, with Jackson making the All-Star game and providing this awesome, memorable moment that only fed into the lore that is Bo the “Baseball Player”:

On paper, one would think that the 1989 Royals were led by their offense. After all, Jackson! Brett! Even Danny Tartabull of Seinfeld fame! And yet, despite a big-name offense, the Royals hitting was actually pretty lackluster in 1989. Outfielder Jim Eisenreich actually led the club in WAR at 3.1, with Jackson trailing him at 2.7. Brett, a Royals hall of famer, was actually a 1.7 WAR player in 1989, the 6th lowest mark in that category of his career. And overall, in comparison to the other 14 AL teams, the Royals’ offense ranked 13th in home runs, 11th in runs scored, and 12th in total bases.

So how did the Royals compete and win 92 games in 1989? The pitching, plain and simple. The Royals ranked third in ERA, 2nd in complete games, and third in strikeouts. The staff was led by Bret Saberhagen, who ended up winning the Cy Young that year with a 2.16 ERA and 9.7 WAR over 262 innings pitched during his award-winning campaign. However, Sabes wasn’t alone, as Mark Gubicza had a solid campaign himself, pitching 255 innings with a 3.04 ERA and a WAR of 6.3. And the bullpen proved to also be one of the most solid in Royals history, with the combo of closer Jeff Montgomery, who posted a 1.37 ERA and 16 saves in 92 innings, and Tom Gordon, who not only posted a 3.3 WAR and 3.64 ERA, but also threw 163 innings and made 16 starts.

Safe to say, the Royals showed some flexibility and dominance from their pitching staff night after night, and that made the difference in a down year from franchise star, Brett.

As in previous years, the Royals in 1989 proved to be a far superior team at Royals Stadium than on the road. The club posted a .679 winning percentage at home compared to .457 winning percentage on the road, and that, along with a .500 September, probably contributed to the Royals coming in second to the Athletics in the AL West in 1989.

1985 Kansas City Royals (91-71, 1st in the AL West; World Series Champs)

Until 2015, no sports team meant more to the Kansas City community than this 1985 club. The 1985 Royals were a peculiar bunch, not exactly the greatest statistically, but they had the right combination of hitting , pitching, managing, and personality to help bring the city a World Championship, which hadn’t happened in the City of Fountains since the Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowl IV in 1970.

The 1985 Royals, managed by Dick Howser, who succeeded legendary manager Whitey Herzog in the second half of 1981, got off to a mediocre start, as they sat at 44-42 at the All-Star break. While the 1984 Royals won the AL West, they did so with a miraculous come back, and there was a lot of argument that the Royals weren’t even the best AL West team that season as well. Thus, the first half of 1985 showed exactly what the naysayers were chirping since the previous season: that the Royals weren’t that good, that they shouldn’t have won the West in 1984, and they weren’t going to win the West this time in 1985, let alone the American League.

And yet, a 47-29 second half for the Royals helped them clinch the West over the Angels. And if that wasn’t enough, the Royals continued their magic into the postseason, coming back from being behind in the series not only against the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS, but the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series as well. Yes, Cardinals fans will claim that they were robbed by Don Denkinger. But at the end of the day, the Royals got it done, not just in that fateful Game 6, but in Game 7 as well. (And besides, the Cardinals have 11 championships on their mantle; they could give KC this one.)

The Royals struggled offensively during the 1985 season. They ranked second to last in the American League in terms of runs/per game, and they also ranked 4th to last in OPS+ as well as second-to-last in batting average. However, while the club didn’t exactly have a “murderer’s row” lineup like the 1927 Yankees, they had some production from some key players in the batting order. George Brett was the club’s best offensive producer, as he posted a 1.022 OPS, 179 OPS+, and WAR of 8.3. Brett was one of only three Royals hitters who posted OPS+ over 100 in 1985, with the other two being DH Hal McRae (118 OPS+) and 1B Steve Balboni (112 OPS+).

As typical for the Royals in their history, the pitching was far superior to their hitting in 1985. They gave up the second-fewest runs per game in the American League, had the second-best ERA, gave up the fewest home runs, and also posted the best FIP in the AL in 1985. Thus, the pitching was a big reason why the Royals were able to bring Kansas City their first World Series crown, even though the hitting was mediocre overall at best.

The rotation was led by Saberhagen (7.1 WAR) and Charlie Liebrandt (6.5 WAR), with Dan Quisenberry (4.2 WAR; 37 saves) holding it down in the Royals bullpen. The pitching staff also got some good end-of-the-rotation contribution from a 22-year-old Gubicza, who went 14-10 and posted a 4.06 ERA and 2.1 WAR.

1989 vs. 1985 inning-by-inning recap

Note: 1989 is the home team due to a better regular-season record.

1st inning

  • Bret Saberhagen takes the hill for the 1989 Royals and is able to get leadoff hitter Willie Wilson to fly out to right field, and Lonnie Smith to strike out looking for the game’s first two respective outs. However, hits a seeing eye single on the ground to right to get on base with two out. Unfortunately, first baseman Steve Balboni lines a sharp one to shortstop which ends the inning.
  • The 1985 Royals go with Charlie Liebrandt to start game 1 of the 3-game series. Liebrandt gets leadoff hitter Kevin Seitzer to ground out to third for the bottom half’s first out. Unfortunately, 1989 Brett is able to get a hit in similar fashion to 1985 Brett: seeing eye single to right field. Liebrandt than walks Tartabull to put runners on first and second with one out, which brings up Bo Jackson to the plate. Bo comes through, ripping a groundball single in the gap to left center field, which scores Brett and advances Tartabull to third. Eisenreich is unable to get a hit, as he hits into a 4-6 fielder’s choice, beating the throw out to avoid the double play, but he does score Tartabull from third on the play. Shortstop Kurt Stillwell grounds out to first base to end the inning.
  • After one, the 1989 Royals lead the 1985 Royals 2-0.

2nd inning

  • The 1985 Royals strike back hard in the top of the second, with Hal McRae and Frank White leading off with singles to left center, and right center, respectively. RF Darryl Motley than hits a double over the right fielder which scores McRae and advances White to third. With runners on second and third and zero outs, it looks like the inning could get out of hand for Saberhagen on the mound, but the Cy Young winner shows why he is the best pitcher in baseball in this crucial spot. He strikes out Onix Concepcion swinging, and though he gives up a walk to Jim Sundberg to load the bases, he makes up for it by getting Wilson to ground into a 5-2-3 double play to end the inning.
  • 1989 White strikes out looking to start the inning, and DH Pat Tabler lines out to second base for the inning’s second out. Catcher Bob Boone though starts a two out rally by hitting a line drive single to center, and Seitzer continues the rally by lining a single to left. However, Brett is unable to continue to momentum, grounding in to a 6-4 fielder’s choice to end the inning.
  • After 2, the 1989 Royals lead the 1985 Royals 2-1.

3rd inning

  • Lonnie Smith starts the top of the third grounding out to shortstop. However, 1985 Brett hits a flyball double to put him in scoring position with one out. Unfortunately, the 1985 Royals are unable to do much with Brett’s double, as Balboni grounds out to third, and McRae strikes out swinging to end the top of the third.
  • Leibrandt starts the inning off strongly, getting Tartabull to fly out deep to right center field, and Jackson to strike out swinging for two quick outs. But Eisenreich is able to run out an infield single to second, which is followed by Stillwell hitting a groundball single to to left center field which advances Eisenreich to third. Liebrandt though is able to escape the jam by getting White to fly out to right to end the inning.
  • After 3, 1989 still leads 1985 2-1.

4th inning

  • Sabes is a little off to start the fourth, giving up a leadoff walk to White. However, the leadoff walk does no damage, as Sabes strikes out Motley swinging, which is followed by White getting gunned down trying to steal by catcher Boone. Sabes then gets Concepcion to chase out of the zone for the strikeout which ends the top of the fourth.
  • The struggles for Leibrandt continue, as Tabler leads off the inning with a double, and Boone hits a single to left center field, which scores Tabler from second. After Seitzer grounds into a 6-4 fielder’s choice, Brett laces a double over the right fielder which scores Seitzer from first. Even though there is a runner on second with one out, the 1989 Royals aren’t able to do any more damage, as Tartabull strikes out swinging, and Jackson grounds out to second to end the inning.
  • After 4, the 1989 Royals lead the 1985 Royals 4-1.

5th inning

  • In the top of the fifth, Sabes gets Sundberg to foul out to third, and Wilson to ground out to first for the inning’s first two outs. Smith does hit a line drive double to left which puts him in scoring position with two outs. However, 1985 Brett grounds out to second to end the inning.
  • Eisenreich continues his strong day by hitting a line drive double to center field to lead off the bottom half of the inning for 1989. After Stillwell grounds out to shortstop for the inning’s first out, Eisenreich steals third off of Leibrandt, who fell asleep on the baserunner at second. Despite 1989 having a runner on third with one out, neither White nor Tabler is able to bring him in, as White pops out to second, and Tabler grounds out to third.
  • After 5, 1989 still leads 1985, 4-1.

6th inning

  • Big bomber Balboni strikes out swinging to start the inning for 1985, but they get a break as McRae hits a Texas League blooper to center field to put him on base. White hits into a 3-5 fielder’s choice, with White beating out the throw at first to avoid the double play and keep the inning alive. However, Motely flies out to right field to end the inning.
  • The 1989 Royals lead off with two straight ground outs, as Boone grounds out to second, and Seitzer grounds out to first. While Brett smokes a line drive single to center field, Tartabull strikes out swinging at the plate to keep Brett stranded at first.
  • After 6, the score remains 4-1 in favor of 1989.

7th inning

  • Concepcion starts off the 7th with a foul out to the catcher for the inning’s first out. However, 1985 shows some life with Sundberg drawing a walk, and Wison hitting a line drive single to left to put runners on first and second with one out. Sabes though escapes the jam by getting Smith to fly out to center, and then Brett to strike out looking to strand two in the top of the 7th.
  • Leibrandt has the easiest inning of the game as he gets a 1-2-3 inning, with Jackson striking out swinging, Eisenreich striking out looking, and Stillwell grounding out to third.
  • After 7, the score remains 4-1 in favor of 1989.

8th inning

  • Balboni continues his struggles at the plate as he strikes out swinging for the inning’s first out. McRae also strikes out swinging on a ball out of the zone for the inning’s second out. White though prevents a 1-2-3 inning by hitting a flyball double to right field to get on second with two outs. However, Motely strikes out swinging to end the inning, to keep White at bay on second.
  • After 115 pitches, Howser goes to the pen and brings in reliever Mike Jones, who only posted a 0.82 K/BB ratio in 1985. Despite his questionable metrics, Jones mows down 1989 in order, getting White to ground out to short, Tabler to fly out to left center field, and Boone to fly out to left.
  • With one inning to go, the 1989 Royals lead the 1985 Royals 4-1.

9th inning

  • Surprisingly, instead of going with Montgomery, the Royals’ closer in 1989, manager Wathan goes with Steve Farr to preserve a 3-run lead. Farr posted a better FIP (3.11) than ERA (4.02) in 1989, and actually had a better K/BB ratio (2.58) than the other main bullpen battery mates other than Montgomery. However, his 10.7 H/9 was the highest hit rate of any regular Royals reliever. Despite that questionable metric, Farr makes Wathan look like a genius, as he gets Concepcion to strike out swinging, Sundberg to ground out to short, and Wilson to ground out to first to end the game, and help give 1989 game 1 of the 3 game series.
  • Final Score: 1989 Royals 4, 1985 Royals 1

Postgame wrap up

Saberhagen proved why he won the AL Cy Young in 1989 by going 8 innings and striking out 10 while throwing a 123 pitches. He did give up 9 hits, which prevented him from going the full 9, but he only allowed one run, and kept the World Series champion at bay all evening long. While 1985 threatened with base runners on, it didn’t seem to faze Saberhagen, as he got the 1985 Royals to strand 16 runners on base total for the game. That’s something that will bother manager Herzog when he reflects on this game later.

Brett was the star of the 1989 squad offensively, as he had a team-high three hits, with a double and an RBI. Eisenreich had two hits and an RBI, and Boone also added two hits and an RBI as well. For 1985, White, Brett, and McRae had two hit-games, though Motley was the only one to drive in a run for the World Series champs.

1989 leads the series 1-0, and could clinch the series with a win in Game 2. Game 2 will go to 1985, as the 1985 Royals will host the game in their era. If they want to force a game 3, they will need a much better performance, especially with runners on base. On the mound, 1985 Saberhagen will go against 1989’s Gubicza in Game 2.

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