KC Royals History: Dennis Leonard, injured but tough

(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

It’s not often a player can be characterized as both durable and injury-plagued, but both terms—and tough—accurately describe retired KC Royals pitcher Dennis Leonard.

The righthander was picked by the Royals in the second round of the 1972 amateur draft and by September 1974 was called up to Kansas City, making his big league debut by pitching two scoreless innings of mop-up work in a lopsided loss to the Chicago White Sox. The rest of his 1974 season made for an ignominious beginning to Leonard’s big league career—he made four starts, lost all four, and ended the year with a 5.32 ERA and more walks than strikeouts.

After a couple of outings with Omaha to open 1975, Leonard was promoted to the Royals and made his first appearance May 4, pitching 5.1 innings in relief in a loss to Minnesota. The Royals moved him to the starting rotation but he lost his first two starts, meaning that the club lost every one of the first eight games Leonard appeared in.

KC Royals rookie starting pitcher Dennis Leonard caught fire in 1975.

A complete game 5-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox on May 16 gave Leonard his first major league victory and the team won his next four starts as well, but Leonard’s only win among those was a 2-1 complete game June 3 triumph at Cleveland.

After that, however, Leonard went 12-3 to finish the season 15-7 and was named the club’s Pitcher of the Year.

In 1976, Leonard continued his growth, finishing 17-10 and pitching his first major league shutout, a four-hit, no-walk, eight-strikeout, 1-0 gem against Detroit. The ironman of the staff logged 16 complete games in 34 starts.

Leonard posted 20 wins in 37 starts with 21 complete games and five shutouts in 1977 and 21 wins and 20 complete games in a club-record 40 starts in 1978.

Injuries begin to impact Dennis Leonard during the 1979 KC Royals season.

Elbow and shoulder injuries knocked Leonard out for four weeks during May and June 1979, yet he still led the club with 12 complete games and five shutouts in posting a 14-12 record.

Leonard was back on track in 1980, going 20-11 to lead the American League with 38 starts. Then, in the strike-shortened 1981 season, Leonard led the league again with 26 starts and posted 13 wins with nine complete games.

Working on a shutout in the seventh inning of the club’s May 21, 1982, game against Texas, he was hit by a line drive off the bat of Buddy Bell (who was later Royals manager during an historic Kansas City losing streak) which broke the index and middle fingers on Leonard’s right hand, necessitating surgery and placement of a pin in the middle finger. After Dan Quisenberry closed out the win that day, Leonard was 5-3 with a 5.14 ERA in 10 starts. He returned in August and went 5-3 with a 5.06 ERA in 11 starts to end the year 10-6, 5.10.

From 1975-1982, Leonard won 130 games, the most in the majors by a righthanded pitcher and second only to southpaw Steve Carlton (152) over that stretch.

KC Royals starter Dennis Leonard tore his left patellar tendon in 1983.

Leonard started the 1983 season 6-3 through nine starts and on May 28 took a no-hitter into the fourth inning against Baltimore at Royals Stadium. But he suddenly fell to the ground after delivering a pitch to Cal Ripken Jr.—the patellar tendon in his left knee had ruptured.

Little did anyone know at the time that Leonard wouldn’t appear in a big league game again for two years. After several surgeries and countless hours of rehabilitation, Leonard began a minor league rehab stint late in the ’85 season, making four starts with Fort Meyers and Memphis and pitching 21.1 innings.

Finally, more than 27 months after the 1983 injury, Leonard was back. He pitched the ninth inning of the Royals’ Sept. 6, 1985, 7-1 victory over Milwaukee. Another scoreless inning was all Leonard would pitch that year, but his hard work had paid off.

Leonard made the club out of the bullpen in 1986, but an injury to Danny Jackson gave him a start April 12 against Toronto. In what was one of his last moments of glory, the tough future team Hall of Famer tossed a three-hit, 1-0 shutout against the Jays.

The rest of 1986 didn’t go as well for Leonard. He pitched another shutout in September but finished 8-13. The won-loss record didn’t show it, but 1986 was a big victory after more than two years of rehabilitation for the man who won 144 games in his career.

Leonard retired after the season.

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Although a knee injury clearly cut his career short, Dennis Leonard was one of Kansas City’s finest starters. And one of its toughest.