Now that we have gotten one of the divisional rounds out of the way in the “Frank White” League, let’s move onto the “George Brett” League, as we have an interesting matchup between two teams that are nearly three decades apart (i.e. no shared players in this matchup): the 102-win 1977 Royals and the World Series champion 2015 Royals.
1977 Kansas City Royals (102-60, 1st in the AL West)
After breaking through and finally making the postseason for the first time in club history in 1976, the Royals in 1977 took another step forward in manager Whitey Herzog’s second full-season in Kansas City (he took over mid-season in 1975). They won a franchise-high 102 games, spending 44 days in first place, and claimed the division by 8 games over the second place Texas Rangers. Even to this day, no Royals team has ever matched the century-win mark, which shows how good the 1977 club was. The 1977 Royals were particularly good in the second half and in one-run games, as they had winning percentages of 69.9 percent and 70.5 percent in those categories, respectively.
The Royals were mostly led by third-baseman George Brett, who had another All-Star campaign in 1977. Brett posted a triple slash of .312/.373/.532 with an OPS of .905 as well as 22 home runs, 88 RBI, and a team-high WAR of 7.6 and OPS+ of 142. However, while the Hall-of-Famer Brett led the Royals offensively, he did get plenty of support. Right fielder Al Cowens posted an OPS+ of 137, DH Hal McRae posted an OPS+ of 136, and catcher Darrell Porter also added an OPS+ of 116. The Royals also had some speed on the basepaths in 1977, as shortstop Freddy Patek stole 53 bases and center fielder Amos Otis stole 23, which helped the Royals rank 2nd in stolen bases in the American League in 1977.
Pitching wise, the 1977 Royals starting staff was led by a four-man rotation, with Dennis Leonard being the No.1 starter of the bunch. Leonard posted a 20-12 record with a 3.04 ERA and 5.6 WAR over 292 innings that season, with 21 complete games to boot. In addition to Leonard grinding it out as the Royals’ frontline starter, Jim Colborn and Paul Splittorff both added innings an effectiveness to the Royals rotation, posting ERAs of 3.62 and 3.69, respectively. In the bullpen, the Royals had a closer-by-committee of sorts, as Doug Bird saved 14 games, Larry Gura saved 10 games, and Mark Littell saved 12 games in 1977.
Despite the Royals being the best team in the American League in 1977 (besting the New York Yankees’ regular season record by two games), the Royals lost to the hated Yankees for the second year in a row in the ALCS 3 games to 2. The Royals actually held a 2 games to 1 lead in the ALCS, with the last two games at home at Royals Stadium. And despite leading 3-1 going into the 8th of Game 5 , the Yankees pulled some Yankee magic out of their hat, and ended up scoring 4 runs in the final two innings to win the ALCS and eventually the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
2015 Kansas City Royals (95-67, 1st in AL Central)
Most modern Royals fans know all about the 2015 Royals and rightfully so: they were the second Royals team to win a World Series title, and the last team to win a World Championship in a major sport in Kansas City since the last Royals World Series in 1985 (unless you want to count Sporting KC’s 2013 MLS Title, which I will). The 2015 Royals had a lot of pressure on them going into the season, as they were a baserunner away from tying and perhaps winning Game 7 of the World Series against Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants. However, Mike Jirschele held Alex Gordon at third, Salvador Perez popped out foul to end the game, and it was the Giants, not the Royals who won a World Series in 2014.
The 2014 Royals team mostly came out of nowhere, parlaying a hot finish to postseason success, as they did not lose a game during the American League playoffs. The 2015 Royals were a much different club. The team in 2015 was actually better in the first half (.605 winning percentage) compared to the second half (.566), and actually dominated most of the season, as they spent 164 days in first place in the American League Central. The playoffs were a magical story as well, as they seemed to be on the brink of elimination in Houston against the Astros, down 2-1 in the series in Houston, as well as late in the game. However, we all know what happened in that game, as evidenced below, and the Royals ended up beating the Blue Jays and then New York Mets in the ALCS and World Series, respectively, to bring a title to Kansas City.
The Royals in 2015 were led by a balance offense which included productive seasons from center fielder Lorenzo Cain (125 OPS+, 7.0 WAR), first baseman Eric Hosmer (122 OPS+, 4.3 WAR), Mike Moustakas (119 OPS+, 4.1 WAR), Kendrys Morales (127 OPS+, 2.7 WAR), and Alex Gordon (119 OPS+, 2.6 WAR). Salvador Perez also provided stability behind the plate, in addition to some pop, as he hit 21 home runs in 2015. And lastly, the Royals got a boost mid-season from trade-deadline acquisition Ben Zobrist, who came over from the Athletics and posted a 120 OPS+ in 59 games with the Royals while filling in mostly at second base.
Much like 2014, the Royals had a free-swinging approach as they ranked first in the American League in strikeouts and last in walks. However, unlike 2014, they were still productive still at generating runs, as they ranked 6th in the American League in runs scored and second in stolen bases and batting average for 2015.
The pitching staff was a question mark in 2015 after the Royals lost former No. 1 starter James Shields to free agency (he signed a long-term deal with the Padres that off-season). In his place, the Royals brought in Edinson Volquez, who had a career year in 2015 in Kansas City, as I have profiled on this blog before. Volquez posted a 2.7 WAR, and the rotation was also boosted by a surprising Chris Young, who posted a 2.8 WAR from the end of the rotation, as well as Yordano Ventura, who posted a 2.1 WAR. The Royals also got reinforcement in the rotation at the deadline with Johnny Cueto, who struggled a bit during the regular season (4.76 ERA), but was lights out during the postseason for Kansas City making his “rental” worth it for GM Dayton Moore and the club.
While the rotation was solid, the Royals bullpen however was the real strength of the Royals pitching staff, as the Royals ranked second in saves in the AL in 2015. Wade Davis broke out as the Royals closer, replacing an injured Greg Holland in the second half. Davis posted 17 saves and a ridiculous 0.94 ERA in 67 innings of work. Kelvin Herrera was also lights out in the late innings, posting a 2.71 ERA and 2.46 K/BB ratio in 69 innings. And lastly, Ryan Madson ended up finding a role in the late innings as well, especially after Holland went down, posting a 2.13 ERA and WAR of 1.8.
2015 vs. 1977 Inning-by-Inning recap
Note: 1977 is the home team due to a better regular season record.
- 20-game winner Dennis Leonard take this hill for the 1977 Royals and proceeds to start the game off strongly by putting down the 2015 Royals in order. He gets leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar to line out to third baseman George Brett, and the proceeds to put down Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain swinging to end the inning.
- Ned Yost goes with Edinson Volquez to start Game 1 of the George Brett Divisional Series, hoping that he will carry his 2015 game 1 magic to this matchup. Volquez gets shortstop Freddie Patek to ground out to third and Darrel Porter to strike out swinging for the first two outs. However, Brett reaches on an infield single to shortstop, as Escobar is unable to throw out the 1977 version of Brett. The 1977 Brett shows his speed on the basepaths as he steals second base on the following pitch. Despite Brett being in scoring position, Volquez escapes the jam by getting center fielder Al Cowens to strike out swinging.
- After 1, things are tied between the 1977 and 2015 clubs.
- First baseman Eric Hosmer starts off the top half of the inning with a line drive single to right field to give the 2015 team their first baserunner of the game. DH Kendrys Morales flies out to right fielder Amos Otis to keep Hosmer at first, but second-baseman Ben Zobrist slaps a single to left field that advances Hosmer to third with one out. Left fielder Alex Gordon shows a good eye and draws a walk to load the bases for 2015. However, the Royals are unable to deliver, as catcher Salvador Perez line out to second-baseman Frank White and right fielder Jarrod Dyson (getting the start over Alexis Rios in this game) grounds out to first base to end the inning with three runners stranded on base.
- Much like 2015, DH Hal McRae opens the bottom half of the inning with a single to left field. After Otis strikes out swinging for the first out, Tom Poquette hits a groundball single that finds the gap and advances McRae to third. Despite 1977 having runners in scoring position and less than two outs, White ends up popping up to first base, and first-baseman John Mayberry ends up popping up to second to end the inning.
- After 2, things are still scoreless between the 1977 Royals and 2015 Royals.
- 2015 leadoff hitter Escobar draws a walk to give the Royals a runner on first with nobody out to start the top half of the third. Moustakas gives the 2015 some hope with a hard hit ball to deep right center, but the speedy Otis is able to make a heck of a catch, and Escobar not tagging prevents him from advancing. Cain then hits into a 6-4 fielder’s choice for the game’s second out, as his speed prevents the double play. Cain makes up for the fielder’s choice by stealing second easily off of Leonard. However, Morales hits a high flyball can of corn to right fielder Cowens which ends the top of the inning.
- Volquez continues to mow down the 1977 batters, striking out Paterk and Porter swinging to get the first two outs of the bottom half of the inning. However, Brett ends up blooping a single to shallow center which prevents an easy inning for Volquez. After Brett gets his second steal of the game, Cowens crushes a mistake high in the zone from Volquez for a two-run homer that gives the 1977 Royal the first lead and runs of the game. McRae flies out easily to Gordon to end the inning, but the damage has been certainly done.
- After 3, 1977 leads 2015 by the score of 2-0.
- After a couple of shaky starts to the past two innings, Leonard settles a bit in the fourth getting Zobrist to ground out to second and Gordon to ground out to short for the first two outs. Perez is able to line a single to left to keep the inning alive, but Dyson grounds out to first base, which ends the top of the 4th.
- Otis is able to ground a hit on the 1977’s fast turf in between the shortstop and third baseman for a single to start off the bottom half of the inning. While Poquette grounds out to Hosmer, he ends up advancing Otis to second. However, Otis gets a little greedy, as he tries to steal third, but he gets gunned down by Salvy for the half-inning’s second out. Volquez finishes the inning by getting Whit to line out to Moustakas at third.
- After 4, the score is still 2-0 in favor of the 1977 Royals.
- Escobar starts the inning off by grounding out to short, and though Moose puts some muscle behind a fly ball to left center, Otis is able to make the play on the warning track. With two outs, Cain ropes a line drive in the left center gap for a double to bring some life to the 2015 team with two outs. However, Hosmer ground out to third base to end the inning, which wastes the scoring opportunity.
- Mayberry draws the leadoff walk, but Volquez keeps the 1977 Royals at bay despite the frustrating walk to the 9-hole hitter. Patek strikes out swinging, Porter hits a shallow fly ball out to right, and Brett does the same thing, only to left. Thus, Volquez gets through the inning smoothly despite the leadoff walk.
- After 5, it is still 1977 in the lead over 2015, 2-0.
- It’s an easy 1-2-3 inning for Leonard in the top half of the 6th. Morales grounds out to shortstop, Zobrist grounds out to first, and Gordon strikes out swinging to end the top of the 6th.
- Not to be outdone, Volquez also gets the 1977 lineup to go down 1-2-3 as well. Cowens pops out to third, McRae strikes out looking, and Otis swings and misses to the bottom half of the 6th.
- Six innings down; still 2-0 in favor of 1977.
- Salvy strikes out looking on a pitch on the edge, and Dyson gets the ball out of the infield, but still flies out to shallow center, with Otis getting a good jump on the ball. Escobar keeps the inning alive with a single to right center field. Unfortunately, Moose hits into a 4-6 fielder’s choice which ends the top of the 7th.
- After the seventh inning stretch, Poquette and White pop out to second and third respectively to give Volquez two quick outs. Mayberry continues to do damage out of the nine hole, as he hits a groundball single to right field. It goes for naught though, as Patek grounds out to short to end the bottom half of the seventh.
- After 7, still 1977 in the lead 2-0.
- While Cains strikes out swinging to start the top half of the inning, Hosmer drives a single to left center to get the 2015 Royals going. Morales then gets 2015 going even more, hitting a ground rule double that puts 2015 in scoring position with less than two outs (though the 2015 Royals wish it didn’t go over the fence as Hosmer would have likely scored). Paulo Orlando comes into pinch run for Morales at second, with Orlando being the tying run. Unfortunately, 2015 wastes another prime scoring opportunity, as Zobrist grounds out to Patek who is playing in and prevents Hosmer from scoring. And Gordon is unable to spur any past playoff magic, as he strikes out swinging to end the inning with the tying run on second.
- Orlando remains in the game as the DH, should the game go to extras. Yost decides to keep Volquez in the game, and it proves to be a wise decision. Volquez gets Porter to strike out swinging to start the bottom half of the eighth, and though Brett laces a triple down the line, it doesn’t hurt Volquez. Cowens pops up to shortstop and McRae grounds out to shortstop to end the bottom half of the eighth with Brett stranded on third.
- We go into the last inning with the 1977 Royals leading the 2015 Royals 2-0.
- After 112 pitches, Leonard is relieved by Larry Gura, who comes in for the save. Salvy flies out to left for the top half’s first out, but Dyson hits one in the right center gap and stretches it into a triple to put the tying run at the plate. Despite the energy being up in the 2015 dugout, Escobar pops out to third and Moose once again comes short. He flies out to deep left center to end the game, with Otis making the catch at the warning track, much to the dismay of the 2015 Royals.
- Final Score: 1977 Royals 2, 2015 Royals 0.
Postgame wrap up
2015 had their chances to take the lead multiple times in this game, as the Royals stranded 20 total runners in the game. Volquez pitched well in the game, going eight innings and striking out eight while allowing only eight hits and one walk. But the two-run home run he gave up to Cowens was on a mistake pitch high in the zone, and that mistake ended up being the nail in the coffin for the 2015 team in Game 1. Eric Hosmer stood out in the game as he went 2-for-3, and Lorenzo Cain got a stolen base for the 2015 Royals.
Leonard gets the player of the game honors, as he guts out a tough eight innings in the 2-0 win. While he did give up three walks, he only gave up seven hits and had six strikeouts in the 1977 Game 1 win. Gura gets the save for his inning of work, which got interesting after Dyson’s triple. Brett was the offensive star of the game for the 1977 Royals, as he went three for four with a triple and two stolen bases.
The 1977 Royals will get a chance to clinch the series and advance to the Championship series on the road in the 2015 era, where the game will be on grass instead of artificial turf in the remodeled Kauffman Stadium. 31-year-old Jim Colborn will be going for 1977 and Johnny Cueto will be going in Game 2 for 2015, hoping to extend the series to a decisive Game 3.