A Course Correction For The 1984 California Angels

After winning the AL West in 1982, the Angels suffered a heartbreaking loss in the ALCS and parted ways with manager Gene Mauch. The 1983 season was a 92-loss disaster. The 1984 California Angels responded by bringing back Mauch and starting a course correction that would last for three years.

The everyday lineup had aging players, but they were future Hall of Famers who could still produce. Rod Carew was 38-years-old, but the first baseman still hit .295 with an on-base percentage of .367. Reggie Jackson was also 38 and now in a DH role, but he hit 25 home runs.

Other accomplished veterans still playing well included second baseman Bobby Grich, with his stat line of .357 OBP/.452 slugging percentage. Doug DeCinces was at third base and he homered 25 times and drove in 82 runs. Brian Downing manned left field with a stat line of .360/.462, 23 homers and 91 ribbies. Fred Lynn was in center, a final stat line of .366/.474 and 79 RBI. And 34-year-old Juan Beniquez provided depth, with a .370/.452 stat line his 354 at-bats.

California’s offense was still flawed. They didn’t hit for average or hit the ball in the alleys. But the ability to hit home runs and draw walks at least allowed the Angels to finish a respectable seventh in the 14-team American League for runs scored.

The starting rotation had more veterans. Geoff Zahn was another 38-year-old still performing and he went 13-10 with a 3.12 ERA. Tommy John, the ageless 41-year-old didn’t have a great year, with a 4.52 ERA, but he still made 29 starts and eased the pressure on the top of the rotation.

It was that top of the rotation where some youth was starting to thrive. Mike Witt was 23-years-old and he emerged as the staff ace. With 15 wins and a 3.47 ERA, Witt started a run where he would be one of the American League’s most reliable starting pitchers.

Ron Romanick made 33 starts and posted a 3.76 ERA. Doug Corbett gave some good work out of the bullpen, working 85 innings with a sharp 2.12 ERA. Luis Sanchez was a respectable closer.  But depth was a problem. Even though Don Aase came back from a 1982 elbow injury in June and pitched well, Mauch didn’t have a lot of arms to rely on and the Angels finished eighth in the American League for staff ERA.

California quickly came out of the gate by beating a good Toronto Blue Jays team three straight and unloading for 27 combined runs. Then the Angels lost three straight to the Minnesota Twins, another team that would jump from being woeful to being respectable in this 1984 season. The up-and-down cycle of the early going continued with a sweep of the Yankees and then getting swept by red-hot Detroit.

By Memorial Day, California’s record was 24-24. Not bad given where they were coming from. Even better when you consider that the strange nature of this 1984 season had them in first place in the AL West.

The alignment of this era had just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place team could make the postseason. In the late 1970s and through much of the 1980s, the AL West was usually the weaker of the two American League divisions and the gap between East and West was most exaggerated this year.

Thus, even though the Angels had to compete in a seven-team division—one that included the Twins, Royals and White Sox for just one playoff spot, it would prove easier to win the 1984 AL West than it would be to grab the second wild-card berth in today’s game.

Chicago was the defending division champion and California lost three of four on the South Side in early June. But they got two of three when the White Sox made the return trip to SoCal and also won five of six against the lowly Cleveland Indians. By the All-Star break, the Angels were 44-42. They were tied for second with Minnesota and one game back of Chicago. Kansas City and Oakland were within four of the lead.

The race was anybody’s to take California looked ready to make a stand when they opened the second half by taking three of four from Milwaukee (the Angels’ sparring partner in the 1982 ALCS, an American league team prior to 1998 and collapsing hard this season), and then grabbing two of three from Toronto. California led the division by as many as 3 ½ games in the late summer.

But Boston, one of several AL East teams that would have won the West, came to Anaheim and won three straight. That triggered a rough August. By Labor Day, the Angels had slipped under. 500 at 67-68. But they were still in third place, only a game and a half back of Minnesota. Kansas City was in second, a single game back, with Chicago having fallen off the pace.

Over the next two weeks, the Angels played the White Sox and Indians home-and-home. California played well and won eight of twelve. They moved to 75-72. Minnesota and Kansas City were 76-72. There were two weeks to go and the Angels were poised to play two big series with the Royals.

The penultimate week opened with KC in Anaheim for a four-game set. The depth problem in the pitching staff was immediately on display. Bruce Kison and Jim Slaton, a couple veterans who had tough years, pitched the first two games—and lost by a combined 20-1.

Wednesday night was must-win. Zahn kept his team in the game into the sixth. Corbett was brilliant out of the bullpen and retired ten straight batters. A 3-3 game went to extra innings. In the 11th, DeCinces singled, was bunted up and scored the winning run on a base hit by Grich. Witt came out the next night and tossed a three-hit shutout. Downing homered and it was enough for a 2-0 win. California averted disaster by salvaging the split.

In between the two series with Kansas City was a weekend set against Texas and the Angels stumbled, losing two of three. When the final week began, they were 78-76, a game and a half back of both the Royals and Twins, who were 80-75.

A Monday doubleheader in Kansas City got the week started. The bats failed in the opener, mustering only three singles in a 4-0 loss. And to illustrate the depth problem one more time, the start in a must-win nightcap fell to Rick Steiner. He made seven career starts and this 12-4 loss was one of them.

The Angels’ backs were to the wall and Lynn responded on Tuesday with a couple hits that helped put California ahead 5-4 going into the ninth. Then Aase, who had done some brilliant work in relief on this night, pitching over four innings, allowed the tying run. In extra innings, the Angels put runners on first and second with one out. Reggie and DeCinces both struck out. They ultimately lost in twelve innings.

Romanick’s Wednesday night gem, a 2-0 shutout, was too late. California was all but finished and Kansas City outlasted Minnesota to win the AL West. The Angels’ 81-81 record tied with the Twins for second place.

It was a disappointing end, but it was a clear course correction after 1983. In 1985, significantly better California and Kansas City teams fought to the final week again. The Angels came up short in that one too, but they kept getting better and in 1986, California returned to the top of the AL West.