Wednesday, May 18, 2011

1981 ALDS: The Yankees brew up a victory


The players' strike threw a major wrench in the 1981 baseball season. When the players walked away from June 11, few people anticipated they'd stay away for two months. When they finally did come back on August 10, Major League Baseball decided to essentially start the season over. The teams that were in first place when the strike occurred earned a playoff berth, and the standings were reset for the start of the second half.

The Yankees benefitted from this format more than any other team. In first place in the AL East at the time of the strike, the Yankees had nothing to play for when the season restarted. They slacked off, finishing sixth in the seven-team AL East in the second half. If teams' total records had been taken into account for the playoffs, the Yankees would have finished fourth. As it was, they were in the playoffs, against the second-half champion Milwaukee Brewers.

The Brewers were the more deserving playoff team, as they had the best overall record in the AL East that year. Milwaukee finished in the top five in most major hitting stats in the American League that year, and their pitching staff was anchored by closer Rollie Fingers, who won the MVP award in that goofy season.

Still, the Brewers were the neophytes, appearing in their first ever postseason series after three years of coming just short, while the Yankees were, well, the Yankees, the postseason veterans.

New York won the first two games of the series in Milwaukee, including a Game 2 shutout by Rookie of the Year Dave Righetti. Coming back home needing only one win to clinch the series, the Yankees lost the next two games, with Fingers getting a win and a save for the Brewers. That set up a series-deciding Game 5 in Yankee Stadium.

The Game
Game 5 featured a rematch of the Game 1 pitching matchup, with Milwaukee's Moose Haas going up against New York's Ron Guidry. Just like in Game 1, the Brewers scored a single run in both the second and the third inning against Guidry. Just like Game 1, the Yankees scored four runs off Haas in the fourth inning. In this one, back-to-back home runs by Reggie Jackson and Oscar Gamble gave the Yankees the lead.

After the fourth, the game became a matchup of bullpens, a strength of each team. Milwaukee brought in a string of relievers, bringing a new pitcher in every inning to try to hold off the Yankees while tried to come back. They would have to mount their comeback against Righetti, who relieved Guidry in the top of the fifth.

After a couple of scoreless innings, the Brewers gained some ground, as a single by Cecil Cooper drove in Robin Yount to cut the deficit to 4-3. The Yankees responded right away, with Rick Cerone hitting a home run in the bottom of the seventh to make it 5-3.

Holding a two-run lead, the Yankees brought in their closer, Goose Gossage, for the final two innings. The Brewers immediately mounted a rally without swinging the bat, drawing two walks off Gossage in the eighth to get runners on second and third with two outs. Don Money's flyout to left ended that threat and, as it turned out, the Brewers' season. The Yankees pushed across two more runs in the bottom of the eighth, and Gossage shut the Brewers down in order in the ninth to advance to the ALCS.

Riding the momentum of surviving against the Brewers, the Yankees swept the Athletics in the ALCS, earning a World Series berth against the Dodgers. There, the Yankees fell victim to Fernandomania, as sensational rookie Fernando Valenzuela and the rest of the Dodgers pitchers shut the Yankees down in a six-game victory. The loss marked the end of an era for the Yankees, as they didn't make it back to the World Series until 1996, the franchise's longest drought since before they bought Babe Ruth.

The Brewers were disappointed in their 1981 LDS loss, but they bounced back to return to postseason play in 1982. After winning the ALCS, the Brewers moved on to the World Series, where they lost to the Cardinals in seven games. After the 1982 World Series, it would take the Brewers 26 years - and a shift in leagues - to make it back to the playoffs.

The Rundown

24. N.Y. Yankees 7, Milwaukee 3 (1981 AL East Division Series)
25. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
26. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
27. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
28. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
29. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
30. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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