Every boy and girl who has ever played baseball or softball has dreamed about coming to the plate in the bottom of the last inning, with their team behind, and hitting the winning home run. It’s one of the most exciting plays in sports, especially if your team is on the winning end. These home runs were coined “Walk off” by Dennis Eckersley. As Eckersley so eloquently put it, “it’s a home run you don’t have to watch. You know it’s out. You just walk off”.
Three of the most famous walk off’s were Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” home run off Ralph Branca which sent the New York Giants to the World Series in 1951, Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 Game seven World Series shot to vanquish the Yankees and Joe Carter’s 1993 Game Six blast which gave the Toronto Blue Jays the Series win. It can also break your heart, like when Chris Chambliss walked off the Royals in the ninth inning of Game Five of the 1976 American League Championship series.
My favorite part of the walk-off is watching the hitter round third base. All of his teammates are waiting behind home plate and they’re going crazy as is the crowd. I love it when the batter throws his helmet into the air right before he crosses home plate. Gives me goosebumps every time.
Only 8,092 fans witnessed the first walk-off home run in Royal’s history. It occurred on Monday June 30, 1969, against the California Angels in a game played at Municipal. The Royals and Angels went into the bottom of the ninth tied at one. Roger Nelson had scattered six Angel hits over eight innings of work. Moe Drabowsky pitched a clean ninth. Rudy May, a solid lefty, came on for California. He retired Mike Fiore and Bob Oliver to start the inning. Lou Piniella, on his way to winning the American League Rookie of the Year, took the second pitch he saw and slammed it over the left field wall to give Kansas City the win. Those ’69 Royals won nine games in walk-off fashion. They also lost eight walk-offs. It seems like they played a lot of one-run games, 59 total, going 31-28 in those affairs.
Piniella’s home run was the Royals only walk-off home run win during their stay at Municipal. Their next walk-off win came on Tuesday July 3rd of 1973, in a game against the Twins at Royals Stadium. The teams entered the bottom of the ninth tied at 6. The game had been a slugfest with the Twins Tony Oliva, one of the most underrated hitters of all time, slamming three home runs, including one in the top of the ninth to tie the game at six. Larry Hisle also hit one for the Twins while Freddie Patek and Paul Schaal went yard against Bert Blyleven. Schaal led off the bottom of the ninth against Ken Sanders, who made his debut in 1964 with the Kansas City Athletics. Schaal got some favorable cheese from Sanders and put it into the left field stands to deliver the win. Schaal was a fine hitter in his day but never much of a home run threat. He only had two, two home runs games in his career with the first coming in 1965.
The Royals scored another exciting walk-off on May 28th, 1974, against the Orioles. That Oriole team had been a juggernaut for years, but by 1974 was starting to age. Paul Blair, Bobby Grich, Tommy Davis, Brooks Robinson, Don Baylor, Boog Powell. There was some star power there. The game went to the bottom of the ninth tied at five. The strangest hit of the day had been Mark Belanger’s third inning home run off Paul Splittorff. Belanger, who could barely hit his weight (and he didn’t weigh much), played for 18 seasons and hit exactly 20 career home runs. Strangely, five of those dingers came in 1974, a career-high for a player called “The Blade”.
Al Cowens led off the ninth with a single off Bob Reynolds. Jack McKeon, showing why he wasn’t ready to manage yet, had George Brett bunt. The Orioles forced Cowens at second. Fran Healy singled to center, moving Brett to third. The Orioles gave Freddie Patek an intentional pass, which brought 35-year-old Cookie Rojas to the plate. Cookie was loved by the Royal faithful and delivered, smashing a Reynolds fastball into the left field seats for the walk-off grand slam. Good times.
John Mayberry provided the fireworks on May 15, 1976, when he walked off the Chicago White Sox. His two-out, 9th inning blast off Goose Gossage gave the Royals a 2-1 victory.
The Royals victimized Gossage again on May 12, 1978, in one of the most exciting finishes ever at the Stadium. More than 33,000 fans came out that Friday night to see the hated Yankees. The Royals had taken an early 2-0 lead. The Royals had a chance to add to the lead in the 5th, but Mickey Rivers made a spectacular over-the-wall grab to rob Clint Hurdle of a home run. Rivers was injured on the play and replaced by Paul Blair, one of the best centerfield gloves of all time. The Royals fell behind 3-2 after a Graig Nettles 7th inning home run off Paul Splittorff.
Yankee starter Ed Figueroa was cruising to a complete game win after getting the first two outs in the 9th. Figueroa then walked Darrell Porter, and his first two pitches to Amos Otis were balls. That was enough for Yankee skipper Billy Martin, who called on his hard-throwing closer Gossage. AO swung at the first pitch he saw, a fastball of course, and hit a deep fly between Blair in center and Reggie Jackson in right. After a long run, Blair had the ball in his glove…momentarily. Jackson slammed into his teammate at full speed, knocking Blair’s legs out from under him. The ball caromed about 100 feet away. Otis, who once had been described as “having a rocket strapped to his ass” circled the bases while the near-sellout crowd went nuts. Royals 4, Yankees 3. Blair and Jackson both suffered minor injuries. Royal skipper Whitey Herzog opined, “I’ve watched thousands and thousands of games, and I never saw a play like that.”
Over the years, there have been many other exciting walk off home run wins. Some of my favorites, in chronological order were these.
1. July 25, 1999 – On a blisteringly hot Sunday afternoon, the Royals overcame a late six-run deficit to walk off the Athletics. This was a really bad Royals team, but this game was one of the most exciting games I’ve ever seen. The Royals nearly won it in the bottom of the ninth and might have, except Tony Muser insisted on one of his best hitters, Rey Sanchez, bunting a runner over. In the bottom of the 10th, Mike Sweeney led off with a single. Jermaine Dye then turned on a two-strike pitch and sent a laser over the right-center wall to give Kansas City an improbable victory.
2. April 5, 2004 – Opening Day. After the Royals surprised everyone in 2003, they were a trendy playoff pick for 2004. That never panned out of course, the team went 58-104 and effectively gave up after trading Carlos Beltran in late June, but that opening day was something else. The Royals came into the bottom of the ninth trailing 7-3 against the White Sox. Joe Randa and Ken Harvey drew consecutive walks leading off the inning. Benito Santiago clubbed a run-scoring double. Aaron Guiel struck out. Mendy Lopez stepped into the box and on a 3-1 pitch hit the longest home run of his career to straightaway centerfield to tie the score and send the crowd of 41,575 into hysterics. Stop for a minute and think how improbable that was. Lopez hit all of six career home runs in 463 plate appearances. This was his only home run of 2004 and was the last one of his career. What a moment.
Angel Berroa stepped in and clubbed a single to left which brought up Beltran. By 2004, Carlos was already a star. On a 2-2 pitch from Damaso Marte, Beltran got all of a fastball, sending it into the fountains in left field and giving Kansas City a 9-7 win.
3. September 22, 2013 – The Royals were still in the wildcard hunt, sort of. The wildcard chase was really decided before the All-Star break. The Royals lost several close, winnable games and were really not playing that well. They went 43-49 before the break. After the All-Star game, they were a different team, going 43-27, but it was too late to catch Cleveland. The 22nd was a Sunday and a good crowd was on hand, almost 28,000. The Royals and Rangers went into the bottom of the tenth with no score. James Shields, Greg Holland and Tim Collins had pitched masterfully. Eric Hosmer led off the tenth with a double, which prompted a pitching change for Texas. The Rangers countered with former Royal great Joakim Soria. It’s hard not to get sentimental about Soria. From 2007 through 2011, he played on some crappy Royals teams and was lights out. In those five seasons, he appeared in 298 games and compiled 160 saves while making two All-Star teams. He had to have Tommy John surgery, the Royals released him, and he missed the entire 2012 season.
Soria started by giving Billy Butler a free pass to set up the double play. That went awry when Sal Perez somehow beat out an infield single. Mike Moustakas fouled out to third for the first out. Then Ned pulled one of his patented unusual decisions out of his hat. He pinch-hit George Kottaras for Lorenzo Cain. Kottaras was a gamer but definitely not LoCain. Maybe Cain was injured, but I can’t think of any universe, real or imagined, where George Kottaras is a better choice to hit than Lorenzo Cain. Anyway, Kottaras hit a weak grounder to second which forced Hosmer at home. Two down. Bases loaded. This brought Justin Maxwell to the plate. Maxwell looked like a guy who could develop into something. He was a big kid, 6’4 225 pounds. Athletic. He definitely looked like a ballplayer but for some reason, he never really got untracked. Baseball is hard. Maxwell and Soria dueled. By this time, of the day, the late afternoon shadows ran between the pitching mound and home plate, making it tough on the batters. Maxwell ran the count to 3-2. The next pitch caught too much of the plate and Maxwell didn’t miss, sending the ball to the Royals Hall of Fame in left. Chaos enthused. The Royals lived to fight another day.
4. July 7, 2015 – The Royals were the best team in baseball in 2015 and by July 7th already had a 4.5 game lead in the Central. This game was the first of a twinbill with Tampa Bay. The Royals came into the ninth with a 5 to 4 lead, but Greg Holland gave up a triple, a walk and a wild pitch to knot the score. I remember watching the game and thinking something was wrong with Holland. It was. By mid-September he would be shut down with Tommy John surgery coming.
Holland got out of the 9th without any further damage. With one out in the Royals half, Eric Hosmer and Alex Rios singled. Omar Infante drew a four-pitch walk. Paulo Orlando came to the plate and on a 1-0 pitch hit one into the left field stands for the 9 to 5 Royal win.
5. August 23, 2017 - This was a Wednesday night inter-league game that drew almost 26,000 fans. The Royals were five games out and were playing like an old punch drunk boxer, trying to get off the mat. They were grinding, but you could tell they just didn’t quite have it. The Royals went into the bottom of the ninth trailing the Colorado Rockies 4-3. Colorado brought out….Greg Holland. Holland had missed all of 2016 recovering from Tommy John, and though he wasn’t back to his usual nasty self, he was still pretty good. Alex Gordon worked him for a walk. Holland retired Whit Merrifield and Lorenzo Cain on a couple of deep, hard-hit drives. Melky Cabrera squeezed a single into left. Eric Hosmer stepped in the box against his old friend. On a 1-1 pitch, Holland left one over the plate and Hosmer got under it, smashing a laser into the right field seats and giving the Royals an improbable 6-4 victory.
4. August 24, 2018 – The Royals had nothing in 2018. By this date they were 34.5 games out of first in the division and just playing out the string. Still, over 19,000 came out to the stadium that night. The opponent was the Cleveland Indians, a division power and major rival. The Royals held a slim 3-2 lead going into the top of the eighth. Ned gave the ball to Brandon Maurer, remember him? Maurer was a major gas can in the Kyle Farnsworth mold. He got two outs sandwiched around a Jose Ramirez single. He needed just one more out. A strikeout, a ground ball, a fly ball, anything. Yonder Alonso ended that dream by putting one deep into the right field seats. 4 to 3 Cleveland. The Royals didn’t do anything in the eighth. Wily Peralta worked out of some trouble in the ninth. The Indians brought on their closer Cody Allen. You got to admit, it didn’t look good. Ryan O’Hearn led off the inning. O’Hearn was a rookie in 2018 and if he was intimidated by the situation, he didn’t show it. He hit the first pitch he saw the other way, into the left field stands for the game-tying jack. The crowd was loving it. Hunter Dozier settled into the box, and on a 1-1 pitch, ripped a drive over the right-center wall to give the Royals a delightful 5-4 win.