The 1991 Oakland A’s Fall From Grace

The Oakland A’s were far and away the best team in the American League from 1988 through 1990. Each year they won the AL West with room to spare and they went a combined 12-1 in ALCS play, capturing three consecutive pennants. In 1989, they won the World Series. But all great runs come to an end eventually and so it was that the 1991 Oakland A’s fell from grace.

Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire were “The Bash Brothers” and they defined the potent Oakland offense. Canseco was as good as ever in 1991, hitting 44 home runs and finishing with 122 RBI. The table-setter, Rickey Henderson had a vintage year himself, with a .400 on-base percentage and 58 steals. But McGwire was a different story—he fell of sharply and only slugged .383.

The offense was still fifth in the American League in runs scored and good enough to win. But pitching, the real crown jewel of the Oakland Dynasty, took a big step backward in 1991. Dave Stewart was one of the great big-game pitchers of his era, but he struggled to a 5.18 ERA in 35 starts. Bob Welch had won 27 games and the Cy Young Award in 1990, but his 35 starts saw him post a mediocre 4.58 ERA.

Dennis Eckersley was still a Hall of Fame closer and saved 43 games with a 2.96 ERA. But the rest of the bullpen, a big strength in the pennant years, also fell off. Eck wasn’t enough to save the staff from falling to 13th in the AL in ERA.

Oakland still played good, consistent baseball through the first four months of the season. They were 26-17 on Memorial Day. They slipped a bit in the early summer, but were still 44-38 at the All Star break and within 2 ½ games of the lead in a packed five-team race.

It was the Minnesota Twins who started to emerge from the pack (prior to 1994 there was no Central Division—both leagues had just an East and West with the winners going directly to the LCS). By the start of August, the seven head-to-head games the A’s had with the Twins were looming large.

Oakland hosted Minnesota for a three-game series on the first weekend of August, with the A’s three games off the lead. They grabbed the Friday night opener 3-1, as Welch went the distance and outdueled Twins’ ace Jack Morris. When Oakland came back the next afternoon and led 5-0 after seven innings, it looked like this race was about to get even tighter.

Instead, the eighth inning on August 3 proved to be the demarcation point where Oakland’s season began to run out of steam. The Twins unloaded for seven runs and won the game 8-6. Stewart pitched the Sunday finale, but gave up three quick runs and lost 6-2.

The A’s slid five games out, but with four games in the old Metrodome two weeks later, there was still opportunity to close the gap. In the opener, Canseco broke up a 2-2 tie in the ninth with a two-run blast. Eckersley gave it back in the bottom of the ninth and Oakland lost in twelve innings.

Welch and Morris rematched on Saturday and the A’s grabbed three runs in the first. Welch promptly imploded and the A’s ended up on the wrong end of a 12-4 rout. It was more of the same on Sunday—despite a 4-1 lead in the seventh behind Stewart, the Twins touched the Oakland ace for two runs, then beat setup man Rick Honeycutt in the eighth.

Oakland finally won the Monday finale, although even that was an adventure—after going ahead 6-0 behind a three-run jack from Henderson, they had to hold on for an 8-7 win. Regardless, at seven games out and with the Twins coming on strong, the push for a fourth straight pennant was all but over. The A’s limped to the finish line and ended up 84-78, in fourth place and eleven games back of Minnesota, who went on to win the World Series.

The mighty Oakland A’s were down, but they weren’t finished. They enjoyed a comeback year in 1992, where they won the AL West again, though this time they came up short in the ALCS. It was 1993 when they collapsed and lost 94 games, triggering a wholesale rebuild that included manager Tony LaRussa moving on to St. Louis.