After the Kansas City Royals swept the Yankees in three straight games in the 1980 ALCS, George Steinbrenner decided to replace manager Dick Howser at the helm with coach Gene Michael, even though Howser led the Yankees to their best regular season record in 17 years. New York’s impulsive owner then signed 29-year-old free-agent outfielder Dave Winfield to a 10-year, $23 million contract, making him the game’s highest-paid player.
With Winfield joining Reggie Jackson in the middle of New York’s lineup, the Yankees got off to a fast start under their new manager. The team stood in first place in the A.L. East, with a record of 34-22, when a players’ strike halted play for two months. However, New York struggled somewhat after play resumed in August, leading Steinbrenner to replace Michael in the dugout with Bob Lemon. The Yankees fared no better under Lemon, posting a record of only 11-14 in their final 25 games. Yet, they benefited from the fact that their first-place standing at the time of the strike guaranteed them a postseason berth, even though they finished the regular season with an overall record of just 59-48.
Hardly an offensive juggernaut, the Yankees finished just 11th in the American League in runs scored, although they did manage to place second in the circuit with 100 home runs. Bob Watson, Willie Randolph, Rick Cerone, and Reggie Jackson all experienced subpar seasons. Dave Winfield was the team’s best player, earning All-Star honors and a seventh-place finish in the league MVP voting.
Fortunately for the Yankees, they compiled a league-leading 2.90 team ERA. Ron Guidry, Tommy John, and A.L. Rookie of the Year Dave Righetti gave New York a formidable “Big Three” at the top of the starting rotation, posting a combined record of 28-17 between them. Righetti led the league with a 2.05 ERA, while John and Guidry compiled marks of 2.63 and 2.76, respectively. Meanwhile, Goose Gossage and Ron Davis formed an intimidating duo in the bullpen, with Gossage posting an ERA of 0.77, finishing second in the league with 20 saves, and allowing only 22 hits in 47 innings of work, while striking out 48 batters. His exceptional performance earned him a ninth-place finish in the MVP balloting.
While New York struggled after play resumed in August, the Milwaukee Brewers were the junior circuit’s most consistent team. After posting a record of 31-25 before the strike, they compiled a league-best mark of 31-22 once the players returned to the field, thereby earning a spot in the A.L. East Division Playoff Series against the Yankees.
Possessing one of the American League’s top offenses, the Brewers scored 72 more runs than the Yankees, finishing second in the junior circuit in that category. They also finished fourth in the league with 96 home runs. Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglivie, and Gorman Thomas were the team’s top three offensive threats. Cooper led the league with 35 doubles and placed among the leaders in runs scored, batting average, hits, total bases, and slugging percentage. Oglivie finished near the top of the league rankings in runs batted in, while Thomas placed among the leaders in home runs, RBIs, and slugging percentage.
Heading into their playoff series with the Brewers, the Yankees had to hope that their superior pitching enabled them to come out on top. While New York compiled a league-leading 2.90 team ERA, Milwaukee finished 12th in the circuit with a mark of 3.91. Pete Vukovich was Milwaukee’s best
starter. The right-hander finished the regular season with a record of 14-4 and an ERA of 3.55. Meanwhile, bullpen ace Rollie Fingers earned A.L. Cy Young and MVP honors by posting a record of 6-3, compiling an ERA of 1.04, leading the league with 28 saves, and allowing only 55 hits in 78 innings of work, while striking out 61 batters.
New York’s superior pitching did indeed prove to be the difference in the first two contests, played in Milwaukee. After falling behind early in the opener by a score of 2-0, the Yankees scored four times in the top of the fourth inning against Brewer starter Moose Haas. Milwaukee scored a third run against starter Ron Guidry, but New York’s outstanding bullpen duo of Ron Davis and Goose Gossage kept the Brewers off the scoreboard the rest of the way. The Yankees won the contest by a final score of 5-3, collecting 13 hits against five Milwaukee pitchers.
The combination of Dave Righetti and Gossage proved to be too much for the Brewers in Game Two. Righetti struck out 10 batters in six innings of work, before Gossage worked the final three innings to earn his second consecutive save. Home runs by Lou Piniella and Reggie Jackson gave the Yankees all the runs they needed to go up two-games-to-none in the Series, with a 3-0 victory.
The Brewer bats finally awakened when the two teams traveled to New York for the remainder of the Series. Milwaukee scored five runs against Yankee starter Tommy John in Game Three, en route to posting a 5-3 victory. Ted Simmons and Paul Molitor homered for the winning team.
Milwaukee’s lineup did little against Rick Reuschel and Ron Davis in Game Four, scoring only two runs and collecting just four hits. But five Brewer pitchers held the Yankees to only one run on five hits, enabling Milwaukee to tie the Series at two games apiece.
The decisive fifth contest pitted Moose Haas against Ron Guidry for the second time in the Series. Milwaukee pushed across two early runs against Guidry to take a 2-0 lead. But the combination of Guidry, Righetti, and Gossage allowed the Brewers to score only one more run. Meanwhile, the Yankees scored four times against Haas in the fourth inning on homers by Reggie Jackson and Oscar Gamble. They scored another run in the seventh inning, then added two more insurance runs in the eighth, en route to clinching the Eastern Division title with a 7-3 victory.By Bob_Cohen
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- 1981 ALDS1, Ben Oglivie, Bob Lemon, Bob Watson, Cecil Cooper, Dave Righetti, Dave Winfield, Dick Howser, Gene Michael, George Steinbrenner, Gorman Thomas, Graig Nettles, Harvey Kuenn, Jerry Mumphrey, Milwaukee Brewers, Moose Haas, New York Yankees, Oscar Gamble, Paul Molitor, Pete Vuckovich, Reggie Jackson, Rich Gossage, Rick Cerone, Rick Reuschel, Rollie Fingers, Ron Davis, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Willie Randolph