The 1977 Yankees are one of the most written about and talked about World Series winners in the history of baseball. The combination of George Steinbrenner’s madness, Billy Martin’s paranoia and Reggie Jackson’s ego under the microscope of a tumultuous summer filled with blackouts, elections and the Son of Sam made the soap opera of the Yankees too much to resist. Even a miniseries was made about that team.
The team had a spectacular conclusion, with Reggie Jackson homering with his final three swings of the season and delivering the Yankees their first championship since 1964. The pitcher on the mound for the clinching was not Cy Young winning closer Sparky Lyle but rather Mike Torrez, a steady veteran who never played a full season with the Yankees.
Torrez pitched a pair of complete game victories in the World Series and made his imprint on the 1977 title. But this entry is not about his World Series. This is about his performance in the ALCS, where his positive contributions were not as obvious as in the World Series but no less important.
The native of Kansas did not even begin the season with the Yankees. The 30 year old right hander was a steady 225 inning a year pitcher who bounced around from the Cardinals, Expos, Orioles and A’s between 1967 and 1977. (He was sent from Baltimore to Oakland in the deal that sent Reggie Jackson to the Birds.)
He found himself joining the Yankee staff in a deal that sent Dock Ellis to the A’s (Ellis lasted in Oakland for about an hour and a half before becoming a Ranger.)
Torrez was a relatively anonymous starter in a staff that featured future Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter, World Series hero Don Gullett and rising stars Ed Figueroa and Ron Guidry. Torrez was steady, unspectacular and reliable for Billy Martin, hardly a boat rocker on a team full of them.
In the ALCS, Martin gave Torrez the ball to start Game 3 in Kansas City with the series tied at one. He fell behind early and eventually finished with an unimpressive 5 2/3 inning outing, allowing 5 runs and getting the loss. The Yankees were on the brink of elimination on Torrez’s shoulders.
Sparky Lyle’s arm and the bat and speed of Mickey Rivers forced a 5th and deciding game between the Royals and Yankees for the second straight year. Billy Martin rattled the controversy cage again by benching Reggie Jackson for the finale. Ron Guidry got the start but did not have his best stuff. Brett’s triple and Al Cowens’ single put the Yankees in a 3-1 hole with 1 out in the third.
Martin lifted Guidry and brought in Torrez to stop the bleeding. He struck out Amos Otis and John Wathan to end the 3rd inning rally.
Then Mike Torrez worked around a lead off hit to throw a scoreless 4th. He tip toed around 2 base runners for a scoreless 5th. He tossed a 1-2-3 inning in the 6th and 7th. All the while Paul Splitorff kept the Yankees from scoring, but the Royals could not pad the lead.
Reggie Jackson came off the bench to make it a one run game before Torrez came out to pitch the 8th. He got the first two outs before walking the next two batters. Lyle relieved him and worked out of the jam. In the end, Torrez threw 5 1/3 shutout innings and kept the game from getting out of hand.
The Yankees would rally for three runs in the 9th and capture the pennant. Lyle clinched the game and was credited for the win. Torrez’s performance probably saved the game and put the Yankees in a position to win. Had Torrez not pitched well, the Royals would have won the pennant and the “Reggie Jackson in New York” experiment would have ended with him on the bench in the post season, nursing a reputation of being a small market player.
Torrez shone in the World Series. When he caught the clinching out, Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent was one of the players who embraced him. Less than a year later, those two would be linked forever as Torrez left for Boston in the off season and served up his former teammate one of the most memorable (and profane inducing) homers in baseball history.
But for Yankee fans, thank Torrez for giving them a chance to see a title and lead to Reggie’s signature moment.
For that reason, Mike Torrez is the Unsung Postseason Hero of October 9.