After defeating the Milwaukee Brewers in a hard-fought five-game series that determined the champion of the American League’s Eastern Division, the Yankees went on to face the Oakland Athletics for the A.L. pennant. While New York struggled to get by Milwaukee in the Eastern Division Playoff Series, Oakland had no such problems emerging victorious in the West.
Oakland advanced to the A.L. West Division Playoff Series by compiling the league’s best record prior to the players’ strike that halted play for two months. Playing an aggressive style of baseball that became known as Billy-ball, the Athletics posted a mark of 37-23 under manager Billy Martin prior to the play stoppage. They then went 27-22 after play resumed, finishing a close second in the division to the Kansas City Royals. Oakland’s overall record of 64-45 ended up being the top mark in the American League. The Athletics then quickly disposed of the Royals in the Divisional Playoff Series, sweeping them in three games by a combined margin of 10-2.
Oakland finished fifth in the American League in runs scored over the course of the regular season, with a total of 458. But the A’s topped the junior circuit with 104 home runs, and they placed fourth in the league with 98 stolen bases, helping to conceal the fact that they finished just 12th in the league in both team batting average (.247) and on-base percentage (.312). Outfielders Tony Armas and Rickey Henderson were the team’s primary offensive threats. Although Armas led the league with 115 strikeouts, batted just .261, and compiled an on-base percentage of only .294, he led the American League with 22 home runs and placed second in the circuit with 76 runs batted in, en route to earning a fourth-place finish in the MVP voting. Henderson placed second to Rollie Fingers in the MVP balloting by batting .319 and leading the league with 89 runs scored, 135 hits, and 56 stolen bases.
It was on the mound that the Athletics truly excelled. They finished second in the league to the Yankees with a team ERA of 3.30, and their rotation featured four, good young starters. Steve McCatty led the staff with a record of 14-7 and an ERA of 2.33, and he threw 16 complete games. Rick Langford won 12 games, compiled a 2.99 ERA, tossed 195 innings, and led the league with 18 complete games. Mike Norris and Matt Keough combined to win 22 games and complete 22 of their starts.
With the Yankees having finished just 11th in the American League in runs scored during the regular season, the Athletics appeared to have a distinct advantage on offense heading into their ALCS showdown. However, New York’s league-leading 2.90 team ERA and superior bullpen seemed to give the Yankees the edge in pitching.
The ALCS opened up in New York, with Tommy John opposing Mike Norris on the mound. The Yankees scored three runs in the bottom of the first inning on a bases-loaded double by Graig Nettles, before Norris settled down to keep New York off the scoreboard the rest of the way. Meanwhile, John limited the A’s to just one run on six hits in six innings of work, before turning the ball over to the Yankee bullpen, which worked three hitless innings. The 3-1 victory gave New York a 1-0 Series lead.
A seven-run outburst in the fourth inning of Game Two enabled New York to cruise to a 13-3 victory. Lou Piniella and Graig Nettles both hit three-run homers, and, working in relief of Rudy May, George Frazier held the A’s scoreless over the final five frames.
Game Three in Oakland remained close until the ninth inning. New York held a slim 1-0 lead heading into the final frame, with the game’s only run scoring on a Willie Randolph home run off Oakland starter Matt Keough. But Graig Nettles blew the contest wide open in the top of the ninth by delivering his second bases-clearing double of the series. As it turned out, the Yankees didn’t really need the extra runs, since Dave Righetti, Ron Davis, and Goose Gossage shut out Oakland on only five hits. The 4-0 victory gave the Yankees a 3-0 series sweep, sending them to the World Series for the first time in three years.
During the lopsided affair, New York ended up outscoring Oakland by a combined margin of 20-4. The Yankees compiled a .336 team batting average, as opposed to the mark of .222 the A’s posted. Although shortstop Larry Milbourne (.462) and centerfielder Jerry Mumphrey (.500) also excelled for New York, Graig Nettles did most of the damage, earning series MVP honors by hitting a homer, knocking in nine of his team’s 20 runs, and batting .500.By Bob_Cohen
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- 1981 ALCS, Billy Martin, Dave Righetti, Dave Winfield, George Frazier, Graig Nettles, Jerry Mumphrey, Larry Milbourne, Lou Piniella, Matt Keough, Mike Norris, New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, Reggie Jackson, Rich Gossage, Rick Cerone, Rick Langford, Rickey Henderson, Ron Davis, Ron Guidry, Rudy May, Steve McCatty, Tommy John, Tony Armas, Willie Randolph