Today’s Postseason Series From The Baseball Project That May Or May Not Amount To Anything is the 1977 American League Championship Series. The series was a rematch from the previous season between the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals, and the second series in a run where the two teams squared off for the pennant four times in five years. The 1976 series was decided in the bottom of the ninth of Game 5 when Chris Chambliss homered off of Mark Littell. While the Yankees were established kingpins in the American League, the Royals were upstarts. They were founded in 1969 just two years after the Athletics left for Oakland (along with an 829-1224 record in KC), and soon became competitive. By their seventh season they were a 90-win team. In 1976 they won their first division title. Then in 1977 they put together their best record in franchise (and still stands today) at 102-60. Managed by Whitey Herzog, the Royals were built on speed and pitching. The rotation was anchored by Dennis Leonard and Paul Splittorff (still the franchise leader in wins) and a closer by committee system in the pen. The offense was led by the Royals’ only Hall of Famer, George Brett, and Hal McRae (136 OPS+), Al Cowens (137), Freddie Patek (53 stolen bases), and Darrell Porter (116 OPS+).
The Yankees made big news after the 1976 season, signing Reggie Jackson from Baltimore. This team was built on power. Besides Reggie and his 32 homeruns, Graig Nettles added in 37 of his own as the team finished third in the AL in long balls. Along with those two the Yankees also had Thurman Munson (reigning MVP, 121 OPS+), a 22-year old Willie Randolph (.347 OBP, great range at second). On the hill was a veteran staff featuring Ed Figueroa, Mike Torrez, Ron Guidry, Don Gullett, Catfish Hunter, and Sparky Lyle. Both teams won 100 games in the regular season and after the previous season’s dramatics, this series was destined to be tense when it opened in Yankee Stadium on October 5.
The Royals opened up the scoring right away, with McRae hitting a 2-run homer just eight pitches into the game. They followed that up with two more runs in the second, chasing Gullett. John Mayberry added another 2-run shot in the third. That was all Splittorff needed as he went eight strong as the Royals took Game 1 7-2. In Game 2 things started to get a little chippy. After the Royals got a run in the third, Cliff Johnson homered off of Andy Hessler to tie it in the fifth, then took the lead when Bucky Dent singled Randolph in. In the top of the sixth Patek doubled with one out and then McRae drew a walk, bringing up George Brett. Brett hit a 1-2 pitch to third, and Nettles didn’t get the ball out of the glove quick enough. Because of the bad timing McRae had a chance to break up the double play, and did he ever. In a move that can best be described as a high cross body, McRae sent Randolph into left field, allowing Patek to tie the game at 2-2. The call stood despite arguments from Randolph, Guidry, Nettles, Billy Martin, Steinbrenner, and anyone else. The Yankees came right back in the bottom half though. With Munson on first with two out Lou Piniella singled and Johnson doubled to get the lead back. After an intentional walk Brett (never known for his glove), misplayed Randolph’s grounder, leading to two runs to score. The Yanks added a run in the eighth for an 8-2 win to even the series. Game 3 in Kansas City was all Royals. They took the early lead and with the score 3-1 in the sixth, Amos Otis opened things up with a 2-run pinch hit double. Dennis Leonard pitched a complete game, giving up only four hits giving the Royals a 2-1 series lead, needing to win only one of two in Kansas City to take their first pennant.
Game 4 wasn’t going to be that game. The Yankees jumped on Larry Gura early, touching him up for four runs in only two innings and five in the first four. The Royals tried to come back, but Martin brought in relief ace Sparky Lyle in the fourth and he went the rest of the way, allowing only two hits. The Yankees took it 6-4, forcing Game 5.
Billy Martin made a controversial decision before the game, sitting Reggie Jackson because he “can’t hit Splittorff” and replaced him with Lou Piniella. After a scoreless top half of the first fireworks exploded in the bottom half. McRae had a one out single and the Brett launched a shot over Mickey Rivers’ head in center, resulting in a triple. When Brett slide in hard at third Nettles took a little exception to it and kicked Brett. Brett popped up and started swinging. Needless to say, this cleared the benches, with the strangest of moments where Billy Martin was trying to be a voice of reason. In something that would never happen today, neither Nettles or Brett were ejected. Al Cowens drove Brett in to make it 2-0 after one. The Yankees got to Splittorff for a run in the third, but the Royals got it right back in the bottom half. It remained 3-1 until the eighth. Randolph led off with a single, chasing Splittorff for Doug Bird. After a one out single, Reggie came in to pinch hit and singled Randolph home. Steve Mingori finished up the inning for the Royals, but couldn’t capitalize in the bottom of the inning. Then Whitey got crazy.
To start off the top of the ninth Herzog brought in starter Dennis Leonard to face 8-9-1 in the Yankees order. Paul Blair led off with a single, the Leonard walked pinch hitter Roy White. Herzog had a quick hook, bringing in Larry Gura. Gura gave up a single to Mickey Rivers, tying the game at 3-3. Herzog pulled Gura for Mark Littell – the same Mark Littell that gave up Chambliss’ homerun the year before. Randolph hit a 3-1 pitch into center for a sac fly and the lead. After a groundout another Brett error scored Rivers, making the score 5-3. In the bottom of the ninth Darrell Porter popped out, and then after a Frank White single, Lyle got Patek to hit into a series ending double play. The Yankees would go on to win the World Series, their first in 15 years and Reggie would famously hit three homeruns in the deciding game. The Royals would come back in 1978 to lose to the Yankees again, but would finally break through in 1980. It would take another five seasons after that, though, for Royals to finally win the World Series.