Wilcox Takes Charge: ’84 ALCS Game 3

October Baseball in Michigan

October in Michigan.  What could be finer?  You’ve got your apple cider, your doughnuts with cinnamon and sugar, your jeans jackets for your archery or four-wheeling or orchard wandering or other outdoor activities.  The air is pleasant the way a drink of ice-cold water is pleasant.

And it’s nice indoors, too, hunkering down from the season’s first real chill.  Good weather for watching the playoffs, the World Series.

A tough ticket | Photo Robert Samuel

Maybe watching Harvey’s Wallbangers jousting against the quicker St. Louis Cardinals.  Maybe a close match between the White Sox and the Orioles.  For Michiganders in the 70’s and 80’s, October had been a time for eating some hardy treats and watching other teams play in the postseason.

But in ’84, the hooded-sweatshirt and jeans vest weather became the milieu for some playoff action, involving our own Tigers.  With Detroit up 2-0 after games at Kansas City, the series swung to gorgeous Tiger stadium, with its blue outfield walls and blue steel girders and its sky-high lounge for the rowdy bleacher creatures.  How baseball should be played.

The Royals were coming off an emotional roller coaster on Wednesday night, having nearly had the wind pulled from their sails, dramatically coming back to tie it, then losing anyway.  The game could’ve given them just a crumb of confidence from the 3-run comeback.  Yet, in the end, their deficit was still 2-0, and the bats were still groggy getting out of bed: the Royals, in two games, had managed a grand total of two extra base hits.

The Tigers had three chances to win the one game they needed, but it was only natural for them to want to close it out as soon as possible.  It was a desire made plain on the face of the night’s starter, Milt Wilcox.

Wilcox vs. Leibrant

Wilcox had run in sand early in his career, struggling just south of .500; in fact, he’d thought of finding a new profession as young as 26, when the Cubs had sent him to AAA.  The Tigers had bailed him out, and in the Sparky era, Wilcox had become a stable mid-rotation man, despite never winning more than 13 games before ’84.  This year, he’d started a career-high 33 games despite arm trouble, propped up by cortisone treatments.  The offense had been good all year, and Wilcox had tallied a career-high 17 wins.

His opponent was lefty Charlie Leibrandt.  He’d worked to gain traction with the post-Sparky Reds, but hadn’t improved by the end of ’82.  So, like Wilcox, Leibrandt found himself demoted from the charter flights of the majors to the chugging busses of the bush leagues.  In the middle of ’83, the Reds traded Charlie to K.C. for obscure hurler Bob Tufts.

Leibrandt was part of a changing tide for the Royals during the season, as Paul Splittorff and Larry Gura gave way to Leibrandt, Black, Saberhagen, and Gubicza in the starting rotation.  Leibrandt went 11-7 on the year with a respectable 3.63 ERA.

Wilcox had more than just intensity on the night—he had great stuff.  His off-speed arsenal dipped and bent and dropped out of the sky on puzzled K.C. hitters.

As for Detroit’s bats, they poked at Leibrandt a bit, but couldn’t really wound him.  In the 2nd, Garbey smacked one back at Leibrandt.  It got past him and was flagged by White behind the bag, but there was no play.  Lemon then hit into a force of Garbey at 2nd with no play at first.  Darrell Evans hacked one to left center and Lemon challenged Willie Wilson, making it safely to third.

Lemon to third!

Up came Marty Castillo, who hit one moderately toward Onix Concepcion, who got the force at second.  But Frank White’s throw was a bit late, and by beating out the d.p,,Castillo had driven Lemon in.  It was 1-0, home team.

Castillo’s Hustle Helped Win the Game

Wilcox put that lead and his back pocket and got stronger and stronger as the game went on.  He kept fooling the Royals, getting their veterans to swing at junk in the dirt, amassing 8 strikeouts on the night.  He also tallied an array of soft fly balls and grounders.

Leibrandt kept the Tigers at bay.  When they got runners on, they grabbed a couple of stolen bases, Leibrandt not keeping runners on, but had a hard time pushing the lead. 

A look at Milt’s Masterpiece, courtesy MLB.

With two outs in the top of the 8th, it was still 1-0.  Willie Wilson was at the plate, looking to move Garth Iorg up and put himself on as the potential go-ahead run.  He topped a Wilcox pitch and sent it bounding into the gap between first and second, when Darrell Evans made a truly remarkable play, stretching his body to make a diving stab, then almost incomprehensibly deciding to take it himself, diving foot first into the bag to beat the Royals’ speedster. 

This is how champions play!

Leibrandt completed his great performance with a 1-2-3 8th, but his hitters were of no help, and the team was in danger of ending the series with 2 extra-base hits in 3 games, and not a single homer.

Send in Willie

That would be in the hands of Willie Hernandez.  When you had a guy like him, there was no reason to push your starters too long.  Wilcox went the entire season and post-season without a complete game, and they didn’t need it from him.

Hernandez got Lynn Jones to fly to Lemon; Brett grounded to Evans.  Hal McRae hit one to the left of Trammell, who stopped it a step on the outfield and threw a tad late to get him. With one one, It was up to Darryl Motley.  Willie got him to pop up along the third base line, where Marty Castillo enthusiastically took it into his glove, and fans, officers, and Tigers burst onto the field to celebrate the Tigers’ American League pennant.

“What a night this has been!” crooned Ernie Harwell as Hernandez ducked into the dugout amid the frenzy.  The Tigers had won on a beaten-out double play by Castillo, a man who’d been forgotten on the regular season, an improbable starter at third. 

And they’d gotten a gritty performance from Wilcox, a man who’d played through pain all year.  They’d dominated the Royals over three games, belying the claims that they’d coasted since May.  They were actually in top form, making the little plays, slugging homers, throwing runners out, striking batters out.  They were still getting contributions from the likes of Grubb and Castillo and Jones.

Let’s hear it for the boys!

The quick work they’d made of K.C. meant that not only had Sparky had to use his Top 3 starters once apiece, but he’d used only Lopez and Hernandez out of the bullpen.  The Tigers emerged from the playoffs without a scrape.  They weren’t emotionally spent anymore than they had reason to be tired.  They were living the life of champions.

There was no rest for the wicked in the National League, though.  While the Tigers were eliminating the Royals, the Cubs failed to do the same to San Diego.  The Padres chased Eckersley (whatever became of that guy?) in the 6th, and McReynolds nailed a 3-run shot off of George Frazier, and the Padres got their first win of the series, 7-1.

Saturday, with the Tigers watching on TV, postseason vet Steve Garvey homered off of ace Lee Smith in the bottom of the 9th to win it for the Pads, tying the series at 2, sending it to Game 5.

On Sunday, Chicago fans saw legend Walter Payton break Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record, with his 12, 323rd yard against the Saints. (The Lions got crushed by the Broncos to go to 1-5.)

One more time, this time with the Al Michaels call!

In the second game of the inter-sport double header, the Cubs sent Sutcliffe against Show, and took the lead with a “Bull” Durham homer in the top of the 1st.  But in the bottom of the 7th, budding superstar Tony Gwynn bopped in Tim Flannery and Alan Wiggins with a double, and the Pads went up 5-3.  The Padres would go on to set down the gut-punched Cubs 6-3, to shock the baseball world and become an unlikely World Series combatant against the Tigers.

We never got to hear a drunk Harry Caray telling us the “Whitaker” backwards is pronounced “re-kati-hwuh” or to see Parrish slam one onto Waveland Ave.  Punky Brewster never attended a game in which the Tigers played.  And it may have helped the Tigers to play San Diego rather than the Cubs.  That’s a speculation others have embarked on.

For now, let’s savor the pennant, and put on our wacky hats for the World Series!

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