The Pitch that Killed- Part One: Gene Mauch


(This is the first in a three part series where I take a look at the three most prominent names that make up the confluence of a seminal moment in Angels’ history twenty-five years ago- The ninth inning of Game Five of the 1986 American League Championship Series: Gene Mauch, Dave Henderson, and Donnie Moore.) 

It was a pitch that had been set in motion four years prior. A pitch meant to put away a hitter that wouldn’t have been in the game if not for an injury. A pitch that was supposed to put the California Angels- and Gene Mauch- into the World Series for the first time. It was a pitch that allegedly caused Donnie Moore to take his own life.

Mauch (1902 wins/2037 losses/ .483 lifetime winning percentage with the Phillies, Expos, Twins and Angels) had been on the cusp of the promised land before. Twice in fact. In late September 1964, Gene Mauch had managed his Phillie club to the best record in the National League with one week left in the season. Philadelphia had finished last, seventh and fourth in Mauch’s three previous seasons, but in ’64 held a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 to play. Philly promptly lost 10 of it’s final 12 games, crashing to earth and losing out to the Cardinals in what is still known as “The Phold”. Eighteen years later Mauch’s Angels were a collection of vagabond talent that he brought to within one win away from facing the Cardinals in the ’82 fall classic but lost in a taut, five-game struggle with the Milwaukee Brewers.

In the seventh inning of the fifth and final game of that 1982 ALCS the Angels, and more notably Luis Sanchez, were clinging to a 3-2 lead with two on and two outs. Mauch had called on Sanchez an inning earlier to relieve the effective Bruce Kison and Sanchez responded by retiring the Brewers in order. Don Money popped out to start the Milwaukee 7th and Sanchez appeared to be rolling along. After giving up back-to-back singles to Charlie Moore and Jim Gantner, Sanchez got Paul Molitor to foul out to left for out number two. League MVP Robin Yount then drew a walk to load the bases. Rather than go to his bullpen and bring in lefty Andy Hassler to face the left-handed Cecil Cooper, Mauch left Sanchez on the mound to finish the inning– something he would not do four years later. Cooper slapped an opposite-field single into left, Moore and Gantner both scored, and the Brew Crew held on to the one-run lead in the final two innings to earn their first and only American League Pennant.

"“If only Cooper’s line drive would have gone to Doug Decinces…” – Jerry Narron, Angel catcher"

Mauch would steer his Angels to the ALCS once again in 1986, this time against the Boston Red Sox. The Sox are infamous for their own collapse in the ’86 World Series where the name Bill Buckner became synonymous with “goat”. But perhaps, as Angel catcher Jerry Narron speculated to MLB Network’s Peter Gammons, Mookie Wilson never trickles the ball through Buckner’s ailing legs had Gene Mauch not been compelled to remove Mike Witt in Game 5 of that year’s ALCS. Narron, who was on both the ’82 Angel squad that lost out to the Brewers and the ’86 team that had been ahead of Boston three games to one, postulated later that, “If only Cooper’s line drive would have gone to (Angel third baseman) Doug Decinces, Bill Buckner never would have happened because the Angels would have been in the ’86 World Series.” To summarize Narron’s logic, Mauch’s hesitation to remove Sanchez in the final game of the ’82 playoffs may have caused him to remove Mike Witt prematurely during the turning point of 1986’s ALCS.

Witt had been cruising through the Sox lineup giving up only two runs on six hits going into the ninth. Three of those six hits, however, came off the bat of Boston catcher Rich Gedman who had homered, doubled and singled off Witt in the second, fifth and seventh innings. In the top of the ninth the Angels had a comfortable 5-2 with their ace still on the mound. Bill Buckner led off with a single to center. Witt got Jim Rice to strikeout looking for out number one. Then Baylor, the former Angel, hit a two-run homer off  Witt, cutting the deficit to 5-4. At this point, Mauch might have been justified in lifting Witt and going to his closer, Donnie Moore, as a ninth inning homer is usually a pretty good sign for a manager that his starter has tired. However, Mauch was thinking two batters ahead and playing the match-ups, something he did not do four years earlier against Milwaukee. Hoping that Witt could get the right-handed hitting Dwight Evans for out number two, Mauch had Gary Lucas in reserve to face the left-handed Gedman and then the righty Moore to face Dave Henderson if needed. Witt did retire Evans on a pop to third, and, one out from the victory, he was lifted for reliever Gary Lucas, who promptly hit the red-hot Gedman with a pitch.

The move to remove Witt and bring in Lucas was brought about, as Narron speculated above, by the fact that Mauch did not remove Luis Sanchez in 1982. Mauch managed by his gut then, but went with the match-ups in ’86. Witt had done nothing with Gedman, as his three hits testify, but even if Gedman had reached base for a fourth time off Witt, Henderson was up next whom Witt had made look foolish on a strikeout in his previous at bat. Mauch can’t be faulted for not wanting Witt to pitch to Gedman. Obviously he was hoping Lucas would retire Gedman to end the game. But perhaps he should have had looked beyond Gedman and allowed Witt to face Henderson again. Instead, Mauch brought in Donnie Moore to replace Lucas and face Henderson.

History- and lives- would change forever.