December 23, 2014

Racing for the 1980 National League Pennant (pt. 1)

April 30, 2009 by · 5 Comments 

The 1980 National League featured a pair of the most exciting division races in baseball history.

National League East
Going into the season, the defending champion Pirates were the consensus favorite to repeat in the N.L. East, and they made their supporters look bright indeed in the early going of 1980. On April 30, they were 11-5, the second-best mark in baseball behind Houston. The team leaders on offense that year were Dave Parker and Mike Easler, both 29-year-old corner outfielders. Parker was coming off a five year stretch in which he hit .321/.377/.532, won three Gold Gloves and also the 1978 MVP award.

Bert Blyleven was the star pitcher, although, as usual, it didn’t show up in the stats. For example: on Opening Day against the Cardinals, he allowed one run on two hits in five innings of work, yet got a loss as the Pirates failed to score a single run and lost 1-0. Two starts later, again versus St. Louis, he went seven innings, gave up four hits and one run, struck out 12 and walked two. This time, he did not factor into the decision, which is at least better than a loss. St. Louis won that game as well, 2-1.

No matter, the Pirates were cruising early on. They stayed in first place until June 7, when they ran into some turbulence and dropped into third. A hot July (18-10) put them back on top, but an 3-11 skid in late August did them in for good. Both the pitching and hitting were merely middling on that Pittsburgh team—a number of players had posted career numbers in 1979, but regressed in 1980. These included Ed Ott, Omar Moreno, Tim Foli and Phil Garner. Collectively, they were no match for the real contenders, Philadelphia and Montreal.

It can’t be claimed that the Phillies snuck up on anyone. As a matter of fact, the core of the 1980 club was substantially the same as it had been during their run of division titles from 1976-1978. The key hitters—Rose, Trillo, Bowa, Schmidt, Luzinski, Maddox—were all either in their primes or past them, and the pitchers weren’t much younger. In 1979, manager Danny Ozark received the lion’s share of the blame in the form of a mid-season dismissal, and new skipper Dallas Green showed immediate signs of improvement. In 1980, the Phillies flashed their championship pedigree with a scorching May record of 17-9. When the Pirates stumbled in late August, Philadelphia was there to pick up the baton as the pennant race narrowed.

In Pittsburgh’s wake, the only true challenger to the Phillies was Montreal. Led by strapping young outfielders Andre Dawson and Ellis Valentine, the Expos saved their best ball for the September, and took the pennant lead in the last weekend of that month with a series victory in Philadelphia. Steve Rogers, Scott Sanderson and David Palmer all pitched tremendous games under intense pressure. Like any good race, however, this one came down to the last series of the season, when the Expos and Phillies met head-to-head once more, in Montreal with equal records.

The first game pitted the Phillies’ Dick Ruthven against the Expos’ Scott Sanderson. The visitors struck first, as Mike Schmidt’s sacrifice fly scored Pete Rose following a double to lead off the game. Schmidt also accounted for the next run with a solo homer in the sixth. Ruthven, meanwhile, was cruising, allowing only two singles and two walks through the first five innings. In the sixth, however, he got himself into a bind, giving up a run on an Andre Dawson sacrifice fly. He was relieved by Sparky Lyle, who defused the situation. Montreal threatened again against Lyle in the seventh but failed to post a run, then was promptly shut down by Tug McGraw, the Phillies’ closer. McGraw struck out five of the six men he faced to seal the victory for Ruthven and put his team one win away from the title.

It was imperative for the Expos to win the second game of the series, and they turned to Steve Rogers to do just that. Rogers, the veteran ace of the staff, led the league in complete games and was in the top ten in nearly every other important category, including ERA and WHIP. Opposing him for Philadelphia was Larry Christianson, a man who had walked very few batters in his career since coming up to the majors in 1973 as a 19-year-old.

On this day, however, Christianson’s control left him in a major way. For one thing, he walked three batters, something he’d done only three time all season. One of those walks, in the third inning, was to fellow pitcher Rogers, leading off the inning. Having violated this cardinal rule of baseball, Christianson attempted to atone by picking his opponent off at first. The throw was on time but wide, and Rogers advanced to second on the error. Incredibly, during the same at-bat, Christianson tried to pick him off again, this time at second, and threw it away again. More than just walking the pitcher, he ‘d moved him to third with no outs. Finally, he delivered to batter Jerry White, and White made him look foolish by hitting a two-run homer.

The Phillies had scored a run in the fifth, and the two teams traded pairs in the seventh inning, making it a 4-3 ballgame when Woodie Fryman came on to close it out for Montreal in the top of the ninth. Pete Rose reached with a dreaded lead-off walk, however, and then came around to score on a pinch-hit single by Bob Boone, tying the game. Montreal was unable to score in the bottom of the ninth, and neither team did so in the tenth. In the eleventh inning, though, Rose was on again at the start of the inning, and Mike Schmidt made his mark yet again with a majestic two run homer. In his third inning of work, McGraw nailed down the save, and the Phillies had the title.

N.L. West
Like in the other half of the National League, the battle in the N.L. West was a three-team race that was whittled down to two. The odd squad out was defending champion Cincinnati, which spent much of the first two months of the season in first place, but faded in the dog days of the season. Parts of the Big Red Machine (Bench, Griffey, Concepcion, Foster) were still kicking, but the under-experienced pitchers and over-experienced batters were not able to come together in the end.

Rather, the race in the second half was between the Dodgers and the Astros. Houston had lost to the Reds by a game and a half in 1979, but had as hard-throwing a pitching duo as ever was seen in the major leagues, with Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard. In 1979, Ryan led the A.L. with 223 strikeouts, and Richard led the N.L. with 313. The next year, they were teammates, and laughably separated in the rotation by knuckleballer Joe Niekro. Offensively, 10 of the top 11 Astros hitters had at least five triples in 1980, and they were second in the league in on-base percentage.

The Dodgers’s batters took the opposite approach, slugging a league-leading 148 homers after hitting 183 the year prior. Like the Reds, Los Angeles was built to win in the present, as only one member of the regular lineup was under 30 years old (center fielder Derrel Thomas, who was 28). Staff ace Jerry Reuss went 18-6 with a 2.51 ERA.

With these highly disparate styles of play, the speedy Astros and burly Dodgers battled throughout the summer, trading places atop the standings every week or so, sometimes more frequently. The tenor of the pennant race turned somber on July 30, though, when Houston’s Richard suffered a stroke on the field of the Astrodome. The tall righty, who had shown so much promise, made an abortive comeback attempt the next season, but never fully returned.

In Richard’s absence, and as the schedule turned to August, then September, the competition remained tight. Following a sweep of the Braves, Houston held a three game lead over the Dodgers, and only three games remaining on the docket. Those, naturally, were in Los Angeles, and Houston needed to win only one of them to clinch the division.

The first game of the set pitted Don Sutton of the Dodgers against Ken Forsch of the Astros. Forsch was untouchable through eight innings and held a 2-1 lead, but an error by Rafael Landestoy kept the ninth inning going until Roy Cey knocked in the tying run. Then, in the tenth, crotchety backup catcher Joe Ferguson hit a walk-off homer for Los Angeles. Two games to go, Houston needed one.

The second game was a match-up between Jerry Reuss and Nolan Ryan. Again, pitching ruled the day. Ryan allowed two runs, one in the second inning and another in the fourth, on a Steve Garvey home run. The Astros only scored one, and the Dodgers won again. One game to go, Houston needed it.

The third game’s starters were Vern Ruhle for Houston and Burt Hooton for Los Angeles, and the Astros finally got out of the gate quickly. Through four innings, they’d rapped out five hits and scored three runs, enough to send Hooton to the dressing room. Ruhle also left the game early, after having faced only eight batters and retiring six of them.

By the eighth inning, Los Angeles had scratched out a pair of runs, drawing within one. After Steve Garvey reached on an error, Cey delivered another big blow—a home run off reliever Frank LaCorte. The Dodgers won the third game, too, and won it by a single run, as it had the first two games. Now there was one more game—a single elimination playoff—and both teams needed it.

After J.R. Richard went down, the Houston pitching staff had a major hole to plug. The main contributor in so doing was veteran Joe Niekro. In his three starts prior to the playoff game against Los Angeles, Niekro was 3-0 with a 0.71 ERA; he’d given up only 14 hits in 25 innings. With his team needing a victory to avoid an embarrassing meltdown, Niekro was the ideal choice, and he did not disappoint. In game 163, he threw a complete game six-hitter, allowing only one run (unearned) to score and striking out six. The Astros offense, meanwhile, broke the tension early with multiple runs in the first, third and fourth innings. Art Howe led the way with three hits, including a homer, and four RBIs. After coming precariously close to blowing their lead, Houston finally clinched the division on the strength of Niekro’s 20th victory.

Happily, these two incredible divisional races were merely a prelude to an action-packed National League Championship Series. That, in an article to come.

Comments

5 Responses to “Racing for the 1980 National League Pennant (pt. 1)”
  1. Tim says:

    Two things….first thing, Charlie Hough wasn’t on the Astros in 1980, so he couldn’t laughably separate Nolan Ryan and JR Richard. Joe Niekro, perhaps? Second, Richard was not a “tall lefty.” He threw right-handed.

  2. Mike Lynch says:

    Tim,

    You’re right. It’s been fixed. Thanks for the heads up.

  3. Tim says:

    Great article, though, 1980 is one of my favorite all-time seasons.

  4. Mike Lynch says:

    It is a great article; Justin is one of our better writers. And I agree about the 1980 season, although I was seriously bummed when the Astros lost to the Phils in the NLCS.

  5. Brendan Macgranachan says:

    Great article Justin, can’t wait to read the one on the NLCS.

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