How The 1986 California Angels Won The AL West

Gene Mauch and the California Angels parted ways after a heartbreaking loss in the 1982 American League Championship Series. The Angels promptly fell apart and by 1985 Mauch was back in the fold. He put the Angels back into contention that year and even though the 1986 California Angels again suffered October heartbreak, they first dethroned the defending World Series champions and won the AL West.

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The Angels said goodbye to a legend before the season began—Hall of Fame first baseman Rod Carew, one of the great contact hitters and great gentleman of the game stepped down. What no one knew was the rookie Wally Joyner was ready for prime time and Joyner finished with 22 home runs and 100 RBI.

Other offseason changes involved strengthening the bullpen. California signed Donnie Moore and he would assume the closer’s role, with 21 saves and a 2.97 ERA. They also made minor moves for Gary Lucas and Terry Forster, each of whom contributed to what was a deep pen in 1986, with Doug Corbett and young Chuck Finley also helping out.

The ace of the staff though, was 25-year-old power righthander Mike Witt. He made 34 starts, finished with a 2.84 ERA, an 18-10 record and finished third in the Cy Young voting. Kirk McCaskill, also 25-years-old, wasn’t far behind, with 33 starts, a 17-10 record and 3.36 ERA. At the other end of the age spectrum, 41-year-old Don Sutton, with a spot already reserved for him in Cooperstown, went to the post 34 times, won 15 games and finished with a 3.74 ERA.

Even though the back end of the rotation was a liability, veteran lefty John Candelaria was still able to make sixteen starts and finish with a 2.55 ERA. And the depth of the bullpen was able to compensate.

So was the offense, which finished sixth in the American League in runs scored, but was the most prolific in its own Western Division. They did it with patience rather than power. The Angels might have been in the middle of the pack for home runs and near the bottom in doubles, but they drew walks better than any AL team.

Brian Downing, the veteran leftfielder, drew 95 walks. He also had some pop, hitting 20 home runs. Doug DeCinces, the 35-year-old third baseman was the other steady power hitter, with 26 home runs. But with the great Reggie Jackson in decline, hitting only 18 home runs at age 40, the Angels had to be resourceful.

And they were, starting with Reggie himself, who still had an excellent .379 on-base percentage. Speedy centerfielder Gary Pettis stole 50 bases. Ruppert Jones only hit .229, but he used his ability to get walks to turn that into a .339 OBP. Bobby Grich and Rick Burleson, veteran middle infielders that came off the bench, each finished with OBP’s over .350. Dick Schofield, the kid shortstop who got more of the playing time, was a sterling defender.

California was still slow out of the gate, but the weakness of the AL West was a big help. They were able to start 12-7 against divisional foes, and then took two of three from defending AL East champ Toronto, but in the ensuing twenty-one games against AL East teams, the Angels won only seven.

By the time Memorial Day arrived they were 21-22, though only a half-game behind Texas and five AL West rivals were stacked within 2 ½ games of each other. One of those teams was the Kansas City Royals, who had won this division six times the previous ten years, including catching the Angels down the stretch in 1985 and ultimately winning the World Series. If California fans were paranoid about a blue-and-white car in the rearview mirror, you couldn’t blame them.

The early part of June got worse, and after getting crushed 10-2 by the Royals to open a home series, the Angels were 4 ½ games out. They split a pair of 6-5 games over the weekend to stop the bleeding. The first-place Rangers came to town for a three-game set starting on June 16 and the AL West race would not be the same when it was over.

McCaskill took the mound on Monday night to face veteran knuckleballer Charlie Hough. McCaskill was brilliant, but trailing 1-0 in the ninth, it looked like California would waste his outing. Then they got a break. Texas leftfielder Gary Ward made an error on a line drive off the bat of Jack Howell and Howell ended up on third. Joyner’s base hit tied the game and a passed ball put him in scoring position.

After DeCinces struck out and Reggie was intentionally walked, George Hendrick, a power righthanded bat off the bench was at the plate. Hough struck him out, but the knuckler danced away. Joyner, running hard all the way, scored from second on the strikeout and California had an improbable 2-1 win.

The Angels kept the momentum and the pitching going. Witt scattered nine hits in a complete-game shutout on Tuesday, while DeCinces three-run blast in the fifth was the offensive key in a 4-0 win. In the finale, California attacked quickly, with three singles and two walks in the first inning and Rob Wilfong delivering a clutch two-out/two-run single. Sutton made it three straight complete games with a three-hitter. The final was 5-1.

After taking two of three in Kansas City, California made a return trip to Texas. This time it was the offense’s turn to unload and they did just that, with 25 runs in three games, sweeping another series. The Angels led the division by a game on June 25, and even though a sluggish 4-5 stretch briefly knocked them back to second, they responded by sweeping a series in Milwaukee and reclaiming first place on July 7. They would never relinquish it.

That’s what we know today. In the moment, the AL West race was still hot, with California up 1 ½ games on Texas at the All-Star break. And even though Kansas City was flailing at 40-48, 8 ½ games out, no one was going to write them off. And the Angels had to open the second half against AL East teams.

It didn’t go well, with six losses in ten games, but the Rangers were even worse and California expanded their lead to three games. A ten-game road trip against division rivals produced .500 ball and knocked the lead back down to a game and a half.

The decisive push began with a ten-game homestand against weak teams in Seattle, Minnesota and Oakland. The Angels won eight times. Then they beat Detroit four straight, with the last game capped off by an astonishing eight-run rally in the ninth inning. Even more unlikely was that the diminutive Schofield won it with a two-out grand slam off Tiger closer Willie Hernandez, just two years removed from a Cy Young Award.

The 13-12 win came on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend and the Angels were in control with a 5 ½ game lead on Texas and Kansas City having finally fallen by the wayside for good.

Baseball fans could look at the schedule and see that the Angels and Rangers would play seven times in the final ten games. California made sure those games would be largely irrelevant. They swept Kansas City, including an 18-3 shellacking and the lead went soaring to ten games by the time the head-to-head matchups began on the second-to-last Friday of the year. The Angels only needed one more win to clinch.

They didn’t waste team. After trailing 2-0 in the sixth inning, the offense exploded for four runs in the sixth and four more in the seventh. Downing homered twice and drove in five runs. The final was 8-3 and the champagne could flow in Anaheim.

California went on to the ALCS to face Boston. After taking three of the first four games and then leading 5-2 in the ninth inning of Game 5, one of the game’s great collapses occurred. A pair of two-run homers gave the Red Sox the lead. The Angels quickly tied it up and had the bases loaded with one out and the chance to win the pennant anyway. The missed that chance, lost the game and lost the final two in Fenway.

It was a devastating defeat, but shouldn’t take away from what the 1986 California Angels did, in winning 92 games and pulling away from the AL West in September.