U.L.’s Toothpick: What If…The Royals Faced Boston In The 1978 ALCS?

The 1978 ALCS is probably the least-remembered of the four playoff matchups the Royals had with the Yankees in the 1976-1980 period. That’s probably because it lacked an indelible image like Yankee fans mobbing Chris Chambliss (and keeping him from touching home plate—that game ain’t over!) after his walk-off home run in 1976 Game Five, or Freddie Patek crying in the dugout after 1977 Game Five, or George Brett hitting a Goose Gossage pitch about five miles in 1980 Game Three. The 1978 ALCS was over in four games, two blowouts and two one-run contests, but it doesn’t look that close on paper.

I do wonder if the series would be remembered more if the Royals had played a different opponent. It very nearly happened. The Yankees and Red Sox famously had an epic battle for the AL East title that year, with the Yankees overcoming a 14-game deficit with just 72 games left to take the division lead in the last three weeks of the season. But New York couldn’t hold that lead, losing on the last day of the season while Boston won, forcing a one-game playoff for the division and the right to face the Royals in the ALCS. That game became known as the Bucky Dent game, after the Yankees’ light-hitting shortstop gave New York a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning with a fly ball that barely cleared the Green Monster. The Yankees finally won 5-4, and then got on a plane for Kansas City to face the Royals the next night.

But what if the Red Sox had won that game, and with it the division? Could the Royals have reached their first World Series two years earlier than they actually did? How might it have played out?

The Royals were 6-4 against Boston in 1978, outscoring them 40-26 in those 10 games. Boston swept a two-game series in Fenway Park in early May, then the two teams split a two-game series in Kansas City the next week. Boston’s slide began in late July, when the Royals swept a three-game series at Royals Stadium by a combined score of 22-8. And in their last meeting of the year, the Royals took two of three low-scoring games in Boston the next week—the loss was a 1-0 affair, a Fenway rarity. When the two teams met in May, Boston was playing well (riding a five-game win streak) while the Royals had just been swept in New York and lost two of three in Milwaukee. In July, the roles were reversed; that sweep in Kansas City was part of a 10-game win streak for the Royals, who moved their July record to 20-7 with the two wins in Fenway. So each team took advantage of the other one struggling a bit.

Everything is different in the playoffs, of course, but the Royals were somewhat on cruise control for the last couple of weeks of the regular season. With a comfortable 5.5-game lead, they went just 7-5 over the last 12 games. Meanwhile, Boston was desperately trying to regain what they had lost, and won eight in a row to close out the regular season, only to be “rewarded” by watching the Yankees win their game that day and maintain their one-game lead. So perhaps momentum would have favored the Red Sox a bit.

As for the all-important pitching matchups, the Royals probably would have had an advantage, since they could have set up their rotation as desired. The only problem with that is that, not knowing whether they would face the Yankees in a park favoring left-handed pitchers or the Red Sox in a park favoring right-handers, how would they have set them up? I suppose they would have gone with the same rotation they ended up using: Dennis Leonard, Larry Gura, Paul Splittorff, and then Rich Gale or back to Leonard, depending on how things were going. The Red Sox, with their frantic comeback at the end of the season, had no such luxury; in fact, they sent their third-best starter, Mike Torrez, to the mound in the AL East tiebreaker game. Boston manager Don Zimmer would have had to make a decision: use 23-year-old Bob Stanley, who made two starts in the last 10 days of the season after being a reliever most of the year, or use top starter Dennis Eckersley on three days’ rest. This being 1978 we’re talking about, three days’ rest was pretty common, so I suppose Boston’s rotation would have gone Eckersley, Luis Tiant, Torrez, and Stanley.

Just based on the matchups in 1978, the Royals would have had an edge. Leonard held Boston to eight runs in two starts that year. Splittorff worked them over for a 1.40 ERA in 25.2 innings in three starts. Gura allowed one run in seven innings in one start (although he was probably not surprisingly bad in his career in Fenway). And Gale had a 1.74 ERA in three starts against the Red Sox that year. Meanwhile, the Royals knocked around the Red Sox starters: Eckersley had a 4.50 ERA in two starts, Torrez gave up four runs in nine innings in one start, and Tiant gave up six runs in 9.1 innings. Stanley was the only one of the four with decent numbers: a 3.68 ERA in 14.2 innings.

The Red Sox had the better offense, but with those pitching numbers, I think I’d pick the Royals to win the series. Yes, I’m a homer, but I do think they would have found a way to pull it off. Kansas City had better pitching and defense, and their offense was actually almost as good as Boston’s (the Red Sox were second in the league with 4.88 runs per game, but the Royals were third with 4.59).

So then what? The Royals would have faced the Dodgers in the World Series. I think they would have had more problems with the Los Angeles rotation (Don Sutton, Burt Hooton, and Tommy John each started two games in the World Series). So perhaps they would have still had to wait until 1985 for a title, or maybe that extra experience would have given them some small edge over the Phillies in 1980. But one thing I can say with 100 percent certainty is that beating the Red Sox in the 1978 ALCS would not have made taking down the Yankees in 1980 any less awesome.

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