Opening Day, April 1, 2013 is 45 days away. There have been one hundred walk off home runs in Angels history. This is the story of #45, a Brian Downing blast that capped a late-inning comeback where the Angels scored seven runs in the final two innings of the game.
April 20, 1986 - The Minnesota Twins were in town with pretty much the lineup that would win the 1987 World Series: Kirby Puckett leading off, Kent Hrbek and Tom Brunansky batting 3-4, Gary Gaetti at 3B and Bert Blyleven on the mound.
It was a match up of future Hall of Famers as the Flying Dutchman faced the Angels own Don Sutton, five wins shy of his 300th career victory. Legend has it that Don hung around too long to get that Copperstown-bound number, but the stats tell a different story. Sutton had an ERA+ of 114 and 110 pitching for the Angels in 1986 and 87, perfectly fine numbers. He came over to the Angels in a trade with the A's late in the 1985 season and was re-reigned for two seasons.
But a few things were always working against Don Sutton. He had been a star for the Dodgers. There always seemed a grudge because of that, although plenty of local baseball fans saw it as a plus. He had been part of the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, who had defeated the Angels in the ALCS with Sutton winning one of those games over the Angels.
The rap that had always followed Sutton in the big leagues was that he had not been a team player. He played, it was said, for personal achievement when he took the mound. As a Dodger he had been in a famous fight with Steve Garvey on the locker room that dominated local media coverage for weeks. Was this reputation deserved? Well, in 1987, with his 300 wins secure and his spot in the rotation questionable (he was, as legend had it, always calculating what would increase his odds of being elected to Cooperstown as the first priority of every thing he did on and off the field), Sutton called police from a pay phone from airport after a road trip flight had landed to report that teammate John Candelaria was drunk driving home. The Angels pitcher got a DUI and Sutton stayed in the rotation. Needless to say, this divided the Angels clubhouse that season and reinforced the negative image when the LA Times got around to reporting the scandal well after the '87 season had ended.
Early in 1986, though, Sutton was 0-2 when he took the Anaheim mound against the Twins on April 20. He allowed a solo homerun to Kirby Puckett and a three-run homer to Mark Salas, but those were half of the four hits he surrendered against two walks. He pitched eight innings, but left down 4-1.
His teammates got Don off the hook with a ninth inning rally - Doug DeCinces hit a two-run homer to ruin Blyleven's chances at a complete game. Ron Davis relieved and proceeded to load the bases and wild pitch in a run. The Angels had tied the game with a three-run ninth inning.
Terry Forster came in to relieve Sutton with the game tied 4-4. They had been teammates with the Dodgers from 1978 thru L.A.'s world championship in 1981. With one out Forster surrendered a homerun to Tom Brunansky. But the comeback was on for the Angels. After scoring three in the ninth they went right to work. Rick Burleson singled, Ruppert Jones walked and Wally Joyner drove in a run with a single.
Tied 5-5 with the winning run on 3B, Doug DeCinces struck out, but Brian Downing hit a three run tie-breaking walk off home run to make a winner out of Forster and the Angels.
The Angels would have six walk off home runs in 1986, their single season record. Downing would hit three of them, also a single season record for one Angel.
Sutton would win his three-hundredth career game at Anaheim Stadium on June 18 with a 5-1 win over Texas. He would win 324 games total and was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 on the fifth ballot of his eligibility.