The Royals’ Five Greatest Games
October 27, 1985: To Don Denkinger, With Love
Many baseball fans from the eastern end of Missouri may be convinced that the Royals were more lucky than superior at the 1985 World Series against the cross-state rival St. Louis Cardinals, but it’s hard to argue against the statement they made in trouncing the Cardinals, 11-0, in the decisive Game Seven.
But, thanks to umpire Don Denkinger—whose blatantly bad blown call in the bottom of the ninth of Game Six rescued the Royals to a come-from-behind, 2-1 victory—the Royals were lucky to even be playing Game Seven.
The Royals opened the scoring in the second when Darryl Motley hit a two-run shot off John Tudor, who entered the game having won 23 of his last 25 decisions for the Cardinals. When Tudor walked three Royals in the third—with Denkinger calling the balls and strikes behind home plate, no less—it helped spark a three-run rally for Kansas City and led to Tudor’s removal; seething in the clubhouse, Tudor took on an electric fan—and lost, badly cutting up his hand. The Royals’ carnage on the field continued; they piled on six more runs in the fifth to officially turn the contest into an 11-0 rout.
The game was out of hand—and in mere moments, so too would the Cardinals’ temper. In a head-scratching move that had danger written all over it, St. Louis (and former Royals) manager Whitey Herzog went to his fifth reliever of the game—fiery starter Joaquin Andujar—and it only took two pitches for Andujar to start jawing away at Denkinger, leading to his ejection. As Cardinal teammates struggled mightily (and perhaps reluctantly) to constrain an irate Andujar, it was Herzog’s turn to get in Denkinger’s face, and he, too, got the thumb. Asked after the game about the ejection, Herzog muttered, “Ain’t no sense livin’ in misery.”
With calm restored, the attention turned to Royals starting pitcher Bret Saberhagen, who was enjoying the night every bit as much as the Cardinals were hating it. The 21-year-old breakout pitcher, whose wife had just given birth to their first child the day before, sailed the rest of the way—tossing a five-hit shutout to win World Series MVP honors, and capping a Kansas City comeback from a 3-1 game disadvantage to win the Royals’ first world title.
November 1, 2016: The Comeback Kids
In their second quest in as many years to capture their second world title, the Royals were taking the road hardest traveled: Winning from behind. Heading into Game Five of the World Series against the New York Mets, six of their ten previous postseason victories on the year had been achieved after trailing—including each of their first three wins in the Fall Classic. Hoping to clinch the series at New York’s Citi Field, the script remained the same as they entered the ninth trailing, 2-0. Perfect, a Royals optimist must have mused; we got the Mets just where we want them.
New York ace Matt Harvey had kept the Royals nailed down for eight shutout innings, and the Royals assumed they would face closer Jeurys Familia in the ninth—but Harvey, well past his hard 180-inning season limit as pre-ordered by his Tommy John surgeon, angrily lobbied to stay on the mound. He won and, eventually, so did the Royals as a result of New York manager Terry Collins’ capitulation.
Lorenzo Cain walked to lead off the inning—and at that point, the Royals really assumed Harvey would get the hook. But stunningly, Collins kept him in. Eric Hosmer next doubled, scoring Cain (who had stolen second); Familia finally came in and got Mike Moustakas to ground out—but Hosmer, the tying run, moved to third with just one down. Alex Gordon next came to the plate and he, too, hit a bouncer—but to the left side, secured by third baseman David Wright, who quickly looked Hosmer back to the bag before throwing to first. But Hosmer, making the aggressive dare as the Royals had been doing all October, sprinted for home anyway just as Wright threw; first baseman Lucas Duda, perhaps stunned, threw wild past home plate, and Hosmer’s run evened the score.
The game remained knotted at 2-2 past the ninth and through the 11th; leading off the 12th, Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez—the eventual Series MVP despite the unusually high abuse he took blocking pitches—singled. Jarrod Dyson pinch-ran for Perez, promptly stole second, and scored two batters later on a single from Christian Colon—making his first plate appearance of the entire postseason. From there, the floodgates opened; a one-base error, two doubles and an intentional walk followed, and the sum total of five Kansas City runs represented the most ever notched by a World Series participant in an extra inning. Shellshocked, the Mets went quietly in the bottom half of the frame and the Royals emerged as world champs with a 7-2 triumph.
July 24 and August 18, 1983: The Pine Tar Game
George Brett always seemed to have the New York Yankees’ number, going back to their ALCS battles of the 1970s. So when Brett hit a two-out, two-run ninth-inning home run off Yankee closer Goose Gossage on a lazy July afternoon at Yankee Stadium, Yankee manager Billy Martin, ever resourceful, figured that if he couldn’t beat Brett with good pitching, he’d beat him with the rulebook.
After Brett circled the bases and took a seat, Martin came out and challenged the home run, saying that Brett’s bat looked to have a foreign substance (in this case, pine tar) more than the required 18 inches from the handle. Home plate umpire Ed Brinkman measured the bat against the plate and agreed with Martin; Brett was out, the game was over and from his calm position in the dugout, Brett came tearing out in a flying rage and engaged in a wild-eyed meltdown in front of Brinkman’s face, all memorably caught on video.
The Royals protested the game—and AL president Lee MacPhail sided with Kansas City, stating in a complex explanation that the spirit of the rule didn’t call for Brett’s bat to be illegal; it was there to keep the balls clean. MacPhail reinstated the home run and ordered the game played on from that moment.
Twenty-five days after the game started, it ended—but not before two Yankee fans sued, leaving the game in doubt until two hours prior, when the New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of the game’s continuation. Even then, Martin had one last trick up his sleeve; he argued that, because the four umpires there to conclude the game were different from those back on July 24, how did anyone know that Brett touched all the bases on the home run? The new umpires were one step ahead of Martin; they produced a written statement from the original umpires stating that, yes, Brett touched the bags.
From there, the Yankees made a joke of the continued game out of defiance. They put ace pitcher Ron Guidry in center field and moved star first baseman Don Mattingly to second. Hal McRae struck out to end the top of the ninth, and Royals closer Dan Quisenberry retired the Yankees in order to wrap up the bizarre affair played before 1,245 fans who paid $2.50 to watch. Yankee George Steinbrenner had the last words on the game—saying MacPhail was “anti-Yankee” and that he should go “house-hunting in Kansas City”—but those words were expensive; commissioner Bowie Kuhn fined him $300,000.
September 30, 2014: Off and Running
The 2014 Royals, a collection of homegrown talent evolved from the lengthy throes of sub-.500 times, ended a 29-year drought of postseason inactivity by clinching a wild card spot and hoped to make their return to October a most memorable one, starting with the play-in Wild Card Game at Kauffman Stadium against the Oakland A’s. They would not disappoint.
It didn’t look good early when Brandon Moss went deep to give the A’s a quick 2-0 lead in the first inning. The Royals rebutted with one in the first and then took a 3-2 lead in the third—and when it stayed at that count entering the sixth, manager Ned Yost made the head-scratching move of removing starting pitcher James Shields, who appeared to be settling in, for young fastballer Yordano Ventura. The ploy backfired as Ventura blew the slim lead, serving up Moss’ second homer (a three-run blast), part of a five-run rally that put the A’s firmly in command at 7-3 for ace pitcher Jon Lester—who took that margin to the bottom of the eighth in a scenario the A’s ideally envisioned when they grabbed him from Boston a few months earlier.
But a crucial moment in the game came when Oakland catcher Geovany Soto, who threw out nine of 17 basestealers for the A’s during the season, had to leave midway through with a banged-up thumb; his replacement, Derek Norris, had thrown out 12 of 72. Moreover, Lester had not once attempted a pick-off throw to first all season long. The Royals saw an opportunity to run ragged on the A’s—but first they had to get on base. That opportunity finally came in the eighth when, playing National League-style small ball, the Royals rallied for three runs with the help of three standard singles, two walks, a wild pitch and four stolen bases, the most ever swiped in a single postseason inning. Still down a run, the Royals rallied anew in the ninth when Josh Willingham singled and was replaced by speedy pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson—who reached second on a sac bunt, stole third and tied the game on Nori Aoki’s sac fly.
Early extra frames proved frustrating for the Royals as they stranded the winning run at third in both the tenth and 11th innings, and that frustration took on a much bigger existence in the 12th when the A’s made good on their own threat to take an 8-7 lead. Facing the prospect of fighting from behind for a third time on the evening, the Royals met the challenge. Eric Hosmer tripled with one out, rookie Christian Colon beat out an infield single and stole second—the Royals’ seventh swipe of the night—and came home with the game-winner when Salvador Perez sharp grounder raced past third base. The wild win launched the Royals on a spirited ride all the way to Game Seven of the World Series, where they finally came up short against San Francisco.
October 10, 1980: The Fourth Time is the Charm
From 1976-78, the fledgling Royals had won the West and set their sights on the World Series—only to be denied all three times by the turbulent Yankees. In 1980, they would finally get their revenge against a Yankee team that had won 103 games during the regular season.
After winning the first two games at Kansas City—placing immense pressure upon the Yankees magnified by Steinbrenner’s constant, public pouting—the Royals came to Yankee Stadium in search of the sweep. They got the tenuous first lift when Frank White homered in the fifth to break a scoreless tie, but the Yankees grabbed the lead an inning later when they plated two tallies off starter Paul Splittorff and his mid-inning replacement, Dan Quisenberry. Then came the seventh inning and the Yankee Killer himself, George Brett. In the earlier three series, the Yankees had triumphed in spite of Brett’s heroics. Not this time. With two outs and two runners on and—guess who—Gossage in to hold the lead, Brett launched an enormous shot above the right-field fence and bleachers, into the upper deck. Quisenberry stayed in to close the game and the series—surviving a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the eighth that failed to yield a single run for the Yankees—and the Royals, after three tries, finally had their first AL pennant.
Kansas City Royals Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Royals, decade by decade.
The Royals' Five Greatest Hitters: A list of the five greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Royals' Five Greatest Pitchers: A list of the five greatest pitchers based on their productivity and efficiency.
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