The 1978 season was tumultuous for the Royals, who underwent a partial roster overhaul and experienced team chemistry issues. The problems started after the 1977 ALCS, when manager Whitey Herzog, convinced that first baseman John Mayberry's poor performance in the series was due to drug use, issued a "him or me" ultimatum to general manager Joe Burke, who sold the popular slugger to the Toronto Blue Jays in April 1978. The sale of Mayberry was the latest in a series of moves that remade the Royals during the offseason. Aging, four-time All-Star Cookie Rojas had been released the previous October and closer Mark Littell and catcher Buck Martinez were traded to St. Louis for reliever Al Hrabosky. More moves would follow during the season, including the June trade of starting pitcher Jim Colborn to the Brewers for Steve Braun and the July sale of Andy Hassler to Boston. Given that the Royals had won 1-2 games in 1978, the number of changes was disconcerting to Kansas City fans. As was the case under former manager Jack McKeon, tensions also developed between Herzog and popular hitting coach Charley Lau. That the Royals were still able to win their third straight AL West title in 1978 spoke volumes about the team's talent, as well as the strengths of Kansas City's farm system and the ability of Herzog to manage his roster.
The club started 1978 as if another 100-win season was in the making, going 14-5 in April and fighting for first place in the West. a 5-14 stretch during the first part of May, however, sank the team to third place, and June didn't prove to be any better. After losing to California on July 6th, the Royals fell to fourth at 41-40, though still only 1.5 games out of first; no team seemed to want the division title at the season's midpoint. Kansas City responded by winning 16 of its next 18 games and vaulting into first, though the other teams in the division also started to play better. The Royals fought into September with a slim one-game lead, before going 21-10 over the final month to take the AL West title by five games over the Angels. For the third year in a row, Kansas City would face the New York Yankees (who broke Red Sox fans' hearts with a dramatic one-game play-in victory on October 2nd) in the ALCS.
Like the previous two seasons, the Yankees defeated Kansas City in the postseason, this time three games to one, despite three HRs by Royals third baseman George Brett in Game 3 and the heroics of outfielder Amos Otis, who hit .429 in the series and stole four bases. After splitting the first two games of the series in Kansas City, Yankee catcher Thurman Munson won Game 3 with a dramatic two-run homer off of Doug Bird in the bottom of the 8th. Game 4 was a pitcher's duel, with the Yankees' Ron Guidry and Goose Gossage outlasting Royals ace Dennis Leonard, who only gave up solo HRs to Roy White and Graig Nettles, but lost his complete-game effort, 2-1.
Though Kansas City had a good year in 1978, winning 90 or more games for the fourth season in a row and winning its third consecutive AL West crown, the third straight loss to the Yankees in the postseason left a bitter taste in the mouths of Royals fans, players, and management. The fact that the Royals and their backers had come to expect excellence from their club, however, illustrates just how far Kansas City had come in the decade since its founding as an expansion franchise.
Fueling these high expectations was the continued excellence of players such as Brett, Otis, and DH Hal McRae. Though Brett's average (.294) and home-run power slumped in 1978, he led the AL in doubles, with 45, stole 23 bases, and made his third straight All-Star team. Otis rebounded from a poor year by leading the team in batting average (.298), home runs (22), and RBIs (96), as well as stealing 32 bases. McRae slugged 16 home runs, and catcher Darrell Porter had another solid season, with 18 HRs and 78 RBIs. Second baseman Frank White won his second consecutive Gold Glove and improved his batting average from .245 to .275. Rookie left fielder Willie Wilson, though only hitting .217, stole a team-best 46 bases in only 127 games. Wilson epitomized the Royals' style of play under Herzog, who preferred to use speed, rather than power, to win ball games. The team's 1978 hitting totals reflected this approach, as the Royals led the league in doubles, triples, and stolen bases.
The Royal's pitching in 1978 continued to be a strength. Leonard won 20 games for the second year in a row (and threw 20 complete games), Paul Splittorff won 19, and Larry Gura moved into the rotation on a semi-permanent basis with outstanding results: a 16-4 record and a 2.72 ERA. Hrabosky was strong in the bullpen, tallying 20 saves, and young starter Rich Gale went 14-8 with a 3.09 ERA.By Matt Defraga
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- 1978 ALCS, 1978 Postseason, AZL Red Sox/Mariners, Al Hrabosky, All-Star, Amos Otis, Andy Hassler, Boston Red Sox, Buck Martinez, California Angels, Charley Lau, Coach, Cookie Rojas, Darrell Porter, Dennis Leonard, Frank White, General manager, George Brett, Gold Glove, Graig Nettles, Hal McRae, Jack McKeon, Jim Colborn, Joe Burke, John Mayberry, Kansas City Royals, Larry Gura, Manager, Mark Littell, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees, Paul Splittorff, Rich Gale, Rich Gossage, Ron Guidry, Roy White, St. Louis Cardinals, Steve Braun, Thurman Munson, Toronto Blue Jays, Trades, Whitey Herzog, Willie Wilson