1985 Detroit Tigers: A Repeat Bid Turns Into Disappointment

1984 had been Detroit’s year. After four years of winning baseball under Sparky Anderson, the Tigers hit a crescendo in the manager’s fifth season, winning 104 games and rolling to a World Series title. The 1985 Detroit Tigers were looking to build on that success and start a dynasty. But in a tough division, in an era when it was much harder to make the playoffs, a late summer slump did in Detroit’s dreams of a repeat crown.

Pitching was the key for the Tigers in 1985. A balanced rotation was led by Jack Morris, Dan Petry and Walt Terrell. The trio combined to make 103 starts, win 46 games and all had ERAs in the 3s. Frank Tanana only made twenty starts, but still won ten games and posted a 3.34 ERA. Randy O’Neal did some spot starting and finished with a 3.24 ERA.

Detroit was getting consistent starting pitching and their relief corps was pretty good too. The closer, Willie Hernandez, didn’t match his 1984 run to the Cy Young and MVP awards, but he still saved 31 games with a 2.70 ERA.

The depth in the pen wasn’t great. Juan Berenguer, who did a mix of starting and relief, had a rough year in ’85. So did Aurelio Lopez, who had been a big contributor to the 1984 title run. But even allowing for this, the Tigers still finished fourth in the American League in ERA.

It was the offense that sunk Detroit. Although not for a lack of power. Detroit finished second in the American League in home runs. Lance Parrish hit 28 homers and drove in 98 runs, good number for anyone and especially so for a catcher. Darrell Evans went deep forty times at first base. Rightfielder Kirk Gibson hit 29 home runs, drove in 97 runs and scored 96. Lou Whitaker played second base and out of the leadoff spot in the batting order, popped 21 homers and scored 102 runs.

So what was the problem? From a team-wide perspective, the problem was that if the Tigers weren’t hitting home runs they weren’t doing much of anything. They ranked in the lower part of the American League in every other offensive category.

From an individual standpoint, the great Detroit shortstop, Hall of Famer Alan Trammell, had a bad year. So did Larry Herndon in left field and Tom Brookens at third. Centerfielder Chet Lemon wasn’t bad, but nor did he stand out. The depth was shaky. And in the 14-team American League, the Tigers finished eighth in runs scored.

There was nothing wrong with the way Detroit started the season. They won their first six games, including a couple over the Kansas City Royals—a rematch of the 1984 ALCS—behind gems from Morris and Petry. Even though the Tigers played up-and-down baseball the rest of the spring, they still rolled into Memorial Day with a record of 24-16.

Prior to 1994, the two leagues had just an East and a West division, with only the first-place teams advancing to the postseason. Detroit was in the AL East under this format and their division was usually baseball’s toughest through much of the 1980s. The 24-16 record had the Tigers three games back of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Detroit had slipped 6 ½ back by June 6 when they headed to Toronto for a big four-game series. On Thursday night, Petry was brilliant…but the bats only mustered four singles and wasted ten shutout innings by their starter. The Tigers eventually lost 2-0 in the 12th. On Friday, Terrell was knocked out by the fifth in a 9-2 beatdown. The gap in the AL East had soared to 8 ½ games. Detroit needed to plant their feet quickly or the race would get away from them.

Gibson and Whitaker stepped up on Saturday afternoon. Whitaker ignited the lineup with four hits. Gibson drove in five runs, including a three-run homer in the first that set the tone and keyed a 10-1 win. On Sunday, Whitaker had three more hits, Gibson drove in three more runs and the Tigers won 8-3. They were still 6 ½ back, but there was a long way to go and given the way the weekend had started, no one in Detroit was likely to complain.

Furthermore, those Saturday and Sunday wins, started a nice run. Facing the Orioles, Yankees and Red Sox, the Tigers went 11-4 and closed to within two games of the lead. But the Blue Jays were a different story. Toronto made their return trip to Detroit and the Tigers lost two of three. By the All-Star break, Detroit was 3 ½ back, with New York nestled in second place, 2 ½ games off the pace.

Everyone was anticipating a hot pennant race. But the late July period after the All-Star game went bad. Facing mostly mediocre AL West teams, the Tigers lost nine of fourteen games. The Blue Jays took advantage and pushed Detroit into a steep 9 ½ game hole as the calendar flipped to August. A nine-game road trip to Kansas City, Milwaukee and Cleveland—with only the eventual World Series champion Royals a difficult opponent—ended with a 4-5 record.

If you were looking for a reason to hope, Detroit had five September games with New York and three against Toronto. But by Labor Day, the Tigers were 10 ½ games out. A homestand with Oakland, California and Seattle—with only the contending Angels a difficult opponent—resulted in a 4-6 record.

The Tigers were on life support and on a road trip to Toronto, the Blue Jays jammed the dagger in—Detroit lost all three games, scoring just six runs in the process.

They limped home with an 84-77 record, good for third place, but 15 games out of first place. The record was sixth-best in the American League and tied for 11th-best overall, meaning that even by the more lenient standards of today, the ’85 Tigers would have still failed to make it back to the postseason.

There’s no getting around the disappointment of this season after the high of 1984. But the Tigers regrouped, made some modest improvement in 1986 and by 1987, they were back on top of the AL East again.