Not only did the Yankees fail to advance to the postseason for the first time in four years in 1979, but they also lost their beloved captain Thurman Munson in a plane crash.  Seeking to put the unhappy events of the previous year behind them, the Yankees moved forward under new manager Dick Howser in 1980.  Featuring a rebuilt roster that included new arrivals Bob Watson, Rick Cerone, Rudy May, and Tom Underwood, the Yankees captured the A.L. East title for the fourth time in five seasons, finishing the campaign with a major-league best 103-59 record.  The Baltimore Orioles placed second in the division, just three games back.

Easily the most well-balanced team in the junior circuit, New York finished second in the league in both runs scored (820) and team ERA (3.58).  Tommy John led the pitching staff with 22 victories, 16 complete games, and 265 innings pitched.  Ron Guidry finished second on the team with 17 wins.  Tom Underwood chipped in with 13 victories.  Meanwhile, working both as a starter and as a reliever, Rudy May finished 15-5, with a league-leading 2.46 ERA.  Fully recovered from the hand injury he suffered during a clubhouse altercation with teammate Cliff Johnson the previous season, Goose Gossage won six games and tied for the league lead with 33 saves, en route to earning a third-place finish in the MVP voting.

Having been acquired through free agency during the off-season, veteran first baseman Bob Watson provided the club with leadership and a consistent bat in the middle of the lineup, leading the team with a .307 batting average.  Willie Randolph batted .294, scored 99 runs, stole 30 bases, finished second in the league with a .429 on-base percentage, and topped the circuit with 119 bases on balls.  Rick Cerone did an outstanding job behind the plate, hitting 14 homers, driving in 85 runs, and batting .277.  He finished seventh in the A.L. MVP voting.  Placing second in the balloting to Kansas City’s George Brett was Reggie Jackson, who had his best year in pinstripes.  Jackson led the league with 41 home runs, finished second with a .597 slugging percentage, knocked in 111 runs, scored 94 others, and batted a career-high .300.

The Yankees subsequently faced the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS for the fourth time in five years.  Having lost each of their three previous meetings with New York, the Royals clearly had revenge on their minds.  Yet, despite having the American League’s best player in George Brett, Kansas City entered the series as a slight underdog.

The Royals had a relatively easy time capturing the A.L. West title, finishing 14 games ahead of the second-place Oakland Athletics, with a record of 97-65.  Although Kansas City won six fewer games than New York, the two teams matched up quite evenly in most areas.  The Yankees scored only 11 more runs than the Royals over the course of the regular season, and, even though Kansas City compiled a significantly higher team batting average (.286 to .267), the two clubs finished with almost identical on-base percentages (.345 for K.C., .343 for N.Y.).  And, despite out-homering the Royals 189 to 115, the Yankees compiled just a slightly higher slugging percentage (.425 to .413).  Kansas City stole many more bases than New York (185 to 86), but the Yankees compiled a better team ERA (3.58 to 3.83).   

Dennis Leonard and Larry Gura headed Kansas City’s starting rotation.  Leonard finished 20-11, with a 3.79 ERA and 280 innings pitched.  Gura went 18-10, with a team-leading 2.95 ERA, 16 complete games, and 283 innings pitched.  Meanwhile, closer Dan Quisenberry posted 12 victories and led the American League with 33 saves, en route to earning an eighth-place finish in the MVP balloting.
First baseman Willie Aikens had a big year on offense, hitting 20 home runs and knocking in 98 runs.  Hal McRae batted .297 and drove in 83 runs.  Willie Wilson earned a fourth-place finish in the MVP voting by batting .326, stealing 79 bases, and leading the league with 133 runs scored, 230 hits, and 15 triples.  However, the driving force behind Kansas City’s successful pennant-run was unquestionably A.L. MVP George Brett, who hit 24 home runs, knocked in 118 runs, and topped the junior circuit with a .390 batting average, a .454 on-base percentage, and a .664 slugging percentage.  The Royals knew that Brett had to have a good series if they were finally going to get past the Yankees in the playoffs.

The ALCS opened up in Kansas City, with New York jumping out to an early 2-0 lead in Game One on home runs by Rick Cerone and Lou Piniella.  But the Royals subsequently scored seven unanswered runs, knocking out Ron Guidry in just the fourth inning, en route to posting a 7-2 victory.  George Brett homered for Kansas City, and Larry Gura kept the Yankees off the scoreboard after the second inning, going the distance for the complete-game victory.

Yankee starter Rudy May surrendered three runs to the Royals in the third inning of Game Two, before settling down and preventing Kansas City from crossing the plate from that point on.  But the Royals already had all the runs they needed, as Dennis Leonard and Dan Quisenberry held New York to only two runs on eight hits, in giving Kansas City a commanding 2-0 Series lead.

The two teams traveled to Yankee Stadium for Game Three, where New York took a 2-1 lead into the top of the seventh inning.  After relieving Yankee starter Tommy John with two men out and a man on, Goose Gossage allowed U.L. Washington to reach first base via an infield single.  Gossage then faced Brett, who promptly delivered a three-run home run into Yankee Stadium’s upper right-field deck that gave the Royals a 4-2 lead Dan Quisenberry protected the rest of the way.  The three-game sweep gave the Royals their first A.L. pennant and helped to lessen, at least to some degree, their feelings of frustration from their three earlier postseason losses to the Yankees.

By Bob_Cohen
1980 ALCS, Bob Watson, Dan Quisenberry, Dennis Leonard, Dick Howser, George Brett, Hal McRae, Kansas City Royals, Larry Gura, New York Yankees, Reggie Jackson, Rich Gossage, Rick Cerone, Ron Guidry, Rudy May, Thurman Munson, Tom Underwood, Tommy John, U L Washington, Willie Aikens, Willie Randolph, Willie Wilson


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