by Danny Boyce
Today’s Postseason Series From The Baseball Project That May Or May Not Amount To Anything is the 1980 National League Championship Series.
The 1980 National League season was one of the most exciting of all time as both division titles came down to the final weekend and the top two teams in each division faced off. In the NL East the Phillies and Expos entered the final weekend three-game series dead even at 89-70. The Phillies held on to the first game 2-1, then took Saturday’s game 6-4 when future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt hit a two-run homerun in the top of the 11th inning to clinch the Phillies fourth division title in five years.
Besides Schmidt – who would win his first NL MVP after the season – the ageless Pete Rose contributed to the offense as well as young speedster Lonnie Smith, who hit .339/.397/.443 and stole 33 bases. The pitching staff was led by the mysterious Steve Carlton, who at 35-years old went 24-9 with a 2.34 ERA and 286 strikeouts in 304.0 innings, capturing the Cy Young Award as well. Speaking of 35-year olds, the bullpen was anchored by Tug McGraw, who in 92.1 innings had a 1.46 ERA and 75 strikeouts while recording 20 saves and a 5-4 mark. The Phillies hadn’t won a pennant since the Wiz Kids of 1950 and were looking to finally get over the hump after their infamous 1964 final week collapse and three straight NLCS defeats.
Out west, the Houston Astros were trying to get over a hump of their own. After years of mostly sub-.500 baseball, the 1979 Astros finished just a game and a half out of first place in the NL West and held a three game lead over the Dodgers as they traveled to Tinsletown for the final weekend of the season. The Dodgers took all three games by one run apiece, forcing a one game playoff to be played also in L.A. Houston pulled it together for that final game, scoring seven runs in the first four innings as Joe Niekro threw a complete game, 7-1 victory and their first ever NL West title.
The Astros were led on offense by the underrated Jose Cruz (.302/.360/.426, 127 OPS+) and Cesar Cedeno (.309/.389/.465, 147 OPS+), and veteran future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who at 36 posted a 115 OPS+. The rotation suffered a massive blow in July when J.R. Richard suffered a stroke, effectively ending his career. However, the remaining pieces pulled it together , with Joe Niekro, Nolan Ryan, and Ken Forsch leading the way. The winner of this series had an opportunity to win their first World Series in franchise history.
The series opened in Philadephia, and pitted Ken Forsch against Lefty. One big things was that Joe Morgan was out of the lineup with a muscle strain. The game was quiet until the top of the third when with one out Cruz lined a shot back up the box and though Carlton got a glove on it, the deflection to Rose was nowhere close enough to the bag to make a play and Astros had their fifth base runner. And Cedeno followed it up with a single up the middle to put runners on first and second. After Art Howe flied out, Gary Woods lined a ball past Manny Trillo (really should have made the play) to give the Astros a 1-0 lead.
It remained that way until the bottom of the sixth. Pete Rose led off and hit a 3-2 pitch towards the hole right of the shortstop Craig Reynolds. Reynolds got to the ball but his throw was high and wide, and a hustling Rose got an infield single. Forsch was able to strike out Bake McBride for the first out, then got Schmidt to fly out to right center, but before he could get out of it, Forsch left a 3-2 fastball over too much of the plate and right in Greg Luzinski’s wheelhouse. The Bull blasted it into the left field seats for a 2-1 Phillies lead.
That would be all the Phillies would need as Carlton went seven innings and Tug McGraw finished it off as the offense added an insurance run in the seventh and Philly took Game 1, 3-1.
For Game 2 Astros manager Bill Virdon sent out his future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan to face Dick Ruthven. After Ruthven set the side down in order in the top of the first, Nolan Ryan walked Pete Rose to lead off the bottom half. This was not a rare occurrence – Ryan’s career WHIP ranks 296th all-time, which is actually worse when you consider he has given up the fewest hits per inning in the history of baseball – but what was rare was that this was the only walk he issued on the night. The walk did no damage, but I felt that it was important to point out.
The game was scoreless until the third and again it was the Astros who struck first. Craig Reynolds drew a one out walk and after Ryan bunted him over (36 points) Terry Puhl line a single that was trapped by Luzinski, and with Reynolds running on the play with two outs he scored easily, then Puhl went to third on an errant throw from Schmidt to second. Ruthven escaped without further damage to keep it 1-0 Houston.
It stayed that way until the bottom of the fourth. Mike Schmidt barely missed a homerun, doubling off of the right field wall to lead off the inning. Luzinksi followed that with an act of self-defense – a check swing double – to bring in Schmidt and tie the game at one apiece. Manny Trillo followed that up with a 40-point bunt, and then Maddox singled to left to score the Bull and give the Phillies the lead. Bowa flied out and Maddox was caught stealing by Bob Boone and the inning was over.
It stayed that way until the seventh. With two out Nolan Ryan of all people drew a two out walk from Ruthven. It may seem strange seeing Ryan batting in the seventh inning of a game in which they were trailing, but
- No one was on base ahead of him
- The 1980 Astros starters weren’t exactly a Murderer’s Row even when you factor in the Astrodome, let alone the bench
Anyway, Terry Puhl then line a shot into the right center alley. Bake McBride made a gallant effort, but could not get his glove on it and the ball bounced to the wall. Garry Maddox had him backed up, but Manny Trillo’s relay throw skipped past Bob Boone and to the backstop and the game was tied. Ryan really should have been out by about 20 feet – he was watching the ball instead of running with his head down (there were two outs for crying out loud) and his path around third was wider than a NASCAR turn at Daytona. Ruthven got out of the inning without any further damage, but again, the game was tied.
The Phillies threatened in the bottom half of the inning as Larry Bowa led off with a single and Bob Boone’s bunt attempt went past Nolan Ryan* and where Joe Morgan would have been had he not been doing his job and covering first for the charging Art Howe.
*-I know it’s blasphemous to criticize Nolan Ryan, but he walked more hitters than anyone else in history and It’s not even close, he couldn’t field his position because the way he pitched always had him out of position. Probably because I’m much younger than most of those who seem to view him as an icon, I see the flaws in his game. Regardless, he was a very good but not great pitcher who accomplished some milestones because of the most fortunate of gifts any pitcher can ever ask for – good health. That’s my theory and I’m sticking with it.
Greg Gross was called on to pinch bunt for Ruthven (I’ll never understand this. Why waste a bench guy to bunt when you can just let the guy who’s due up lay it down and save the guy for a spot when he can, you know, hit?), which he did, putting runners on second and third with one out. Ryan was then pulled in favor of Joe Sambito, who promptly intentionally walked Pete Rose (again, why not just let Ryan intentionally walk the guy and bring in Sambito to throw strikes right away instead of throwing four wide ones? I’ll never completely understand). Sambito struck out McBride, the Dave Smith came in and got Schmidt looking to end the threat. I can only imagine the conversation the 43-year old me would be having with my Uncle Pat and my dad during that inning. If you guys think it’s colorful between Langdon and I, remember in the family dispute all three of us are drinking.
Tug McGraw was brought in to relieve Ruthven and the tie didn’t last long. Joe Morgan led off with a double to right, then Jose Cruz singled past a diving Trillo and the Astros had the lead. A double play and a ground out finished off the inning, but the Phillies had work to do.
The lead didn’t last long. Dave Smith stayed in to try and close it out, but Luzinski led off the bottom of the eighth with a single and was replaced with the speedster Lonnie Smith. Manny Trillo laid down a 10-point bunt to move Lonnie to second. Garry Maddox then hit a looper into center field. Cesar Cedeno played it on the bounce, and even though the throw was pretty good, Lonnie was off from the start and as mentioned, he could fly, so made it easily to tie the game, Maddox moving to second on the throw home. Smith then intentionally walked Larry Bowa (?!?!?!), struck out Boone, and then got Del Unser – pinch hitting for McGraw – to end the inning.
Ron Reed got the Astros in order in the top half of the ninth, then Frank LaCorte was in to keep the game tied. He got Rose to fly out to lead off the inning, then McBride singled to right, followed by Mike Schmidt singling past Craig Reynolds, putting runners on first and second. After fouling of several pitches, Lonnie Smith blooped a ball into right field right in front of Terry Puhl. Third base coach Lee Elia held up McBride at third loading the bases with one out*. Manny Trillo swung at strike three up around his eyes, then got Maddox to pop out to first in foul ground and take us to extra innings.
*–wisely, in my opinion; if Puhl comes up with the catch McBride is easily doubled up and the threat is over. Take your chances with the bases loaded and one out. I’ve watched too many human windmills in the third base coaching box ruin innings because they want to take a chance.
In the tenth Ron Reed gave up a leadoff single to Puhl. Enos Cabell then bunted him over, leading to Reed intentionally walking Joe Morgan. Jose Cruz then singled between first and second, and when McBride’s throw went to the backstop, Puhl scored, and the runners moved up, making it 4-3 with runners on second and third and one out.
Then, a sore Joe Morgan was pulled in favor of Rafael Landestoy. This proved to be a big moment because Cesar Cedeno came up and hit a grounder to short. Larry Bowa alertly fired home, but Landestoy was off from the get-go and made it safely. Kevin Saucier was brought in to relieve Reed. Dave Bergman then tripled – yes, Dave Bregman a man who up to that point had a grand total of 14 extra base hits and a .293 slugging percentage in 300 at-bat – to clear the bases and make it a 7-3 game. The Phillies tried to make it interesting but could only manage one run and the series was even going to Houston for Games 3 and 4.
Game 3 marked the first time Major League Baseball went indoors for their postseason. For those too young to remember, the Astrodome was called “The Eighth Wonder of the World”. Mrs. R.E. Smith, the widow of one of the original partners when the Astrodome became a reality. A city that just 20 years ago had no major sports team now had their football team reach the AFC Championship game, their baseball team reach the NLCS, and later that basketball season their basketball team would reach the NBA Finals. For a city that prided itself in being truly Texas, this was a true moment of pride.
Larry Christensen would take the bump for the Phillies against knuckleballer Joe Niekro. Both teams got a runner to second in the first but neither scored. Both went quietly in the second inning. In the third Pete Rose singled with one out, then Bake McBride singled to right to put runners on the corners. A knuckleball got away from catcher Luis Pujols, allowing McBride to advance to second. Schmidt then hit one pretty well right at the third baseman Enos Cabell who threw home in plenty of time to get Rose. In fairness to Pete, I’m not sure he had much else he could do. Rose discussed it the following day on ABC with Howard Cosell and said about as much. Luzinski drove one to the wall, but Cruz caught it for the final out. In the bottom of the fourth Cruz had a one-out triple, but Christensen was able to work around it without any damage. Then came a big blow to the Astros.
With one out in the bottom of the sixth Jose Cruz was intentionally walked and Cesar Cedeno hit a taylor made double play ball. Cedeno tried to beat out the throw but didn’t, and in the process went down hard. In his attempt to stretch and reach the base in time his foot hit the side of the bag and his ankle turned. He was carried off the field and replaced by Dave Bergman in the lineup and Terry Puhl in center field. It turned out his ankle was fractured and his series – and season – was over.
The game remained scoreless but two innings stand out, both with the Astros in the field. First, the top of the ninth. Joe Niekro is still on the hill of this 0-0 game and with two out he hits Garry Maddox. On the very next pitch Maddox easily steals second. With first base open and two outs, they intentionally walked Larry Bowa. Niekro got Bob Boone to line out in the left center field alley to end the inning and keep the game scoreless.
Then in the top of the 11th Garry Maddox doubled with two out off of Dave Smith. Again, they intentionally walked Larry Bowa. Smith struck out pinch hitter Del Unser to end the inning, but . . .
Is there something I’m missing here? Larry Bowa’s best year with the bat was 1975 when he had an OPS+ of 94. In 1980 he was a 34-year old no-hit shortstop with an OPS+ of 71, a switch hitter who couldn’t hit from either side of the plate (.606 OPS as a lefty, .660 as a righty), and twice the righty intentionally walked Larry Freakin’ Bowa. I mean, if he’s batting against me he’s 4 for 5 with three doubles and a home run, and the only out is the last at bat because he’s feeling cocky and tries to drive one out to straight away center, only to have it caught at the wall. But I’m not a major league pitcher. Oh, decisions.
Anyway, in the bottom of the 11th with Tim McGraw’s dad on the hill, Joe Morgan led off with a triple just out of the reach of Bake McBride’s glove in right center. Cruz and pinch hitter Art Howe are intentionally walked to load the bases for Denny Walling. Morgan again was pulled for a pinch runner, his knee still bothering him late in the game. Walling hit an 0-2 pitch to left field and Landestoy easily scored for a 1-0 win and a 2-1 Astros series lead.
For Game 4 Dallas Green sent out his ace with the season on the line as Steve Carlton squared off against Vern Ruhle. The game was pretty quiet until the fourth inning.
Bake McBride and Manny Trillo singled back to back to lead off the inning, bringing up Garry Maddox. On a 1-2 pitch, Maddox hit a soft low liner back to Ruhle, who appeared to have caught it on a short hop – at least according to Don Drysdale doing the play-by-play – and throw to first for the out. After a second of confusion Art Howe went over and tagged second, reasoning that Ruhle had caught the ball on a fly for the first out, throwing to first for the second out, then when he stepped on second base, voila, a triple play, right? Well . . .
Everyone looked confused. Cabell threw his hands up at third, McBride and Trillo stared blankly into space, assuming that the ball was short hopped. After a brief discussion home plate umpire Doug Harvey calls it a triple play. Naturally Larry Bowa calmly waked out to discuss it with Harvey, meaning he was upset. Everyone was upset.
As ABC showed the various replay angles they had, in a classic case of what happens on NFL Sundays, the replay didn’t show enough. Howard Cosell even says in the air, “This would cause Pete Rozell the football commissioner to tell you ‘this is why you can’t count on replays.’”
But it gets better. Right after Cosell says that the call would be changed, NL president Chub Feeney discussed it with the umpires, and did something remarkable. They made a ruling that made nobody happy. I’ll sum this up as best as I can.
Doug Harvey’s initial ruling of “no catch” was what caused Bake McBride to go to third and Trillo was doubled off as a result of the normal flow of play. McBride was permitted to return to second because no effort was made to get him out until time was called. It was officially ruled a 1-3 double play for all scoring at home, and both managers played the remainder of the game under protest. Honestly, I think Harvey did the right thing. Bowa grounded out (what? The didn’t walk him?), and the inning was angrily over.
Enos Cabell led off the bottom of the fourth with a double off of Carlton when Lonnie Smith lost track of the ball, allowing it to hit the track and bounce off of the wall. After Morgan moved Cabell to third on a ground out and Gary Woods walked, Art Howe hit a routine fly ball to left field. Oh, Lonnie Smith. . .
OK, Lonnie Smith had small hands and small feet. He was notorious throughout his time in the minors for slipping in the outfield and having the ball slip out of his hand as he tried to throw the ball in. But, because he slipped a lot, he knew he couldn’t just sit there feeling sorry for himself. He would get back up, chase the ball down and, providing he could get a grip on it, throw a strike to whatever base and nail the runner who was trying to take an extra base at his expense; it wasn’t uncommon for him to lead his league in errors and assists.
Well, Lonnie had the ball slip on his attempt to throw Cabell out at home. He picked it up and fired in towards third, where Gary Woods was attempting to go, and got him to end the inning, but not until Cabell scored. What an inning! 1-0 Astros!
After the Phillies went down in order, Luis Pujols got the bottom of the fifth going with a one out triple over Garry Maddox’s head in straight away center. Rafael Landestoy ripped a single past a diving Mike Schmidt and it was 2-0 Houston and the Astros could almost taste the champaign.
It looked as if the Astros were going to add another run in the sixth. Joe Morgan led off with a walk but was forced out by a Gary Woods ground out. Woods stole second, the Art Howe was intentionally walked. Carlton then unintentionally walked Jose Cruz to load the bases and his day was done. Dickie Noles came in to relieve the Phillies’ ace, facing Luis Pujols in a tight spot. Pujols hit a fly ball to medium right field, but McBride’s throw home was way off line and Woods scored easily to make it 3-0.
Or so everyone thought. As it turned out, Woods left early and both Rose and Schmidt saw it. Noles did exactly what he was supposed to do on the appeal and Woods was called out. The score remained 2-0.
In the top of the eighth Greg Gross pinch hit for reliever Rod Reed and singled up the middle to start things off. Lonnie Smith followed that up with a single of his own, putting two on with nobody out. Then the classic 1970’s and 1980’s staple dilemma of “do I pull my starter?” came into play. Virdon did the typical thing and left his starter in there, but let’s just mention a couple of things:
- He was only at 98 pitches (not that anyone was counting back then)
- It is not as if these two hits were rockets; the were of the seeing eye variety and has the shortstop not been shifted drastically towards the middle Smith’s grounder would have been a force out at worst.
So he stayed with Ruhle. And Pete Rose found a hole for a seeing eye single, and after 18 innings the Phillies were finally on the board in Houston. And a fundamental mistake was taken advantage of by the wily veteran became huge. Jeffrey Leonard was in right field and when he got the ball he threw to third in an attempt to get Lonnie Smith. Lonnie’s speed and jump made that a bad decision to begin with, but with that throw to third, Rose alertly took second base, putting the go ahead run in scoring position. In any event, Ruhle’s day was done.
Dave Smith was brought in to face Mike Schmidt. After Schmidt fouled a ball off of Pujols’ ankle there was a delay and Pujols had to leave and be replaced by Bruce Bochy. Schmidt then hit a chopper up the middle that Joe Morgan got to but couldn’t make the throw to first. Everyone was safe and the game was tied. Manny Trillo then hit a sinking fly ball into right where Leonard made a fantastic play to catch it and make a throw home, but Rose was able to score standing up and the Phillies had the lead. But, because this game could not have more routine innings than crazy ones, Mike Schmidt was called out for leaving early at first base. Cosell described it best with the line “This whole place is dumbfounded!”
And Schmidt was wrong. The umpire called it a catch very clearly and Schmidt for some reason didn’t see it. Let’s just go to the ninth.
In the top half Larry Bowa got to second with two out but didn’t score. In the bottom half Warren Brusstar was in for his second inning of relief and walked Rafael Landestoy on five pitches. With McGraw warming up in the pen, Joe Sambito bunted Landestoy to second. Terry Puhl lined a single into right to score Landestoy and tie the game. The throw got away from Boone, but Puhl did not advance. Just wait.
Still with one out Virdon decided to make something happen and send the runner, so Terry Puhl was off like a prom dress when Enos Cabell sent a lazy fly ball to right field. McBride squeezed it and easily doubled off Puhl to end the inning. For the fifth time we had a goofy ending to an inning. And for the third time we got extra innings in the 1980 NLCS.
(It should be added that Keith Jackson was earlier this day covering the Texas-Oklahoma game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. That game featured 14 turnovers and two more fumbles that weren’t lost. Needless to say that he had a helluva day.)
In the top of the tenth Pete Rose singled with one out. Mike Schmidt then lined out to left, bringing up a big pinch moment. “The Bull” Greg Luzinski was called in to pinch hit for Bake McBride, Dallas Green hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. They got more thunder than lightning, but it worked. Luzinski lined a double into the left field corner that bounced right out to Jose Cruz, who threw online to Landestoy. Landestoy’s relay was online, but short hopped Bochy. Bochy never did come up with ball and instead of Pete Rose being out by 20 feet, he was safe with a mini collision for the go ahead run. Trillo then doubled home Luzinski, who came in from third after Bochy couldn’t pick up the ball cleanly. The Phillies couldn’t tack on to the lead but went into the bottom of the tenth with a 5-3 lead.
The oddest thing about this game – considering all that happened – is that the bottom of the tenth was three up, three down. Nothing crazy, nothing insane. Just three outs. The series was dead even with one game left to decide the National League Pennant in 1980.
Game 5 put Nolan Ryan on the hill against Marty Bystrom. Philly went down in order in the first, while Terry Puhl got the Astros on the board first again by singling to lead off, stealing second with one out, and scoring on Jose Cruz’s double. The Phillies took the lead with two in the second on an RBI single from Bob Boone. It remained that way until the sixth.
Denny Walling led off the inning by lining a shot into the left center alley. Greg Luzinski overran the slicing liner and it went off his glove and to the wall for a two-base error. After a ground out Alan Ashby pinch hit for Pujols and singled up the middle. When Walling beat out Maddox’s throw to the plate the game was tied at two apiece.
In the seventh Larry Christensen was brought in by Dallas Green to face the top of the Astros order. Puhl singled, Cabell bunted him over. Morgan grounded out to third and Cruz was intentionally walked. Then Denny Walling came through again with an RBI single to give the Astros the lead. Christensen’s next – and last – pitch was in the dirt and got by Boone. Cruz came in to score to make it 4-2. Ron Reed was brought in to face Art Howe. Howe launched Reed’s first pitch into right center, scoring Walling and landing on third. It was 5-2 and it felt like it was all over but the shouting.
Oh, but I wouldn’t have written that if it was that easy. Bowa led off the top of the eighth with a bloop single. Boone then hit one up the middle, Ryan couldn’t get a clean pick of it, and there were two on with nobody out. Greg Gross then bunted down the third base line, where Cabell was nowhere to be found until it was too late. That brought Pete Rose to the plate. In a classic battle where “No Retreat and No Surrender” was clearly attitude, Rose drew a walk to score Bowa. Ryan’s night was done. Joe Sambito was brought in and Keith Moreland was called on to pinch hit for Bake McBride. Moreland hit a high chopper that was enough to get an out at second, but another run scored and with one out the tying run was just 90 feet away. Ken Forsch was brought in to face Mike Schmidt and he struck Schmidt out looking. It looked like the Astros might just get out of it alive.
But of course not. Del Unser hit the first pitch he saw into right center for a single and a tie game as Ramon Aviles (who pinch ran for Moreland) scooted around to third. Manny Trillo then came up and lined one down the third base line. With the outfield shifted for Trillo to go the opposite way, both base runners came around to score and Trillo landed at third base for a two-run triple and a 7-5 Philly lead. Forsch was able to get Maddox to finish the inning and keep it a two run game.
Tug McGraw came in to finish off the Astros and it went about as well as you would expect. Craig Reynolds singled to lead off the inning, and after a strikeout Terry Puhl had yet another hit. McGraw struck out Cabell looking, giving him two outs and two on. But Rafael Landestoy had an RBI single past Mike Schmidt. Then Jose Cruz looped a single into center to score the tying run. McGraw was able to get Walling to end the inning, but they went to the ninth tied.
The Phillies got Bowa to third with two outs but couldn’t get him across. The Astros went in order and for the fourth game in a row there were extra innings. Frank LaCorte was in for his second inning of work in the tenth and after striking out Schmidt Del Unser doubled into the right field corner. Trillo sent Unser to third on a fly ball to the track in center. Then with two out Garry Maddox hit a sinking liner the just got under Puhl’s glove, scoring Unser and giving the Phillies an 8-7 lead. Larry Bowa lined out to end the inning.
In the bottom half Dick Ruthven was also starting his second inning of work and got Danny Heep to pop out to short. Then he got Terry Puhl to fly out deep to center. And when he got Cabell to fly out to Maddox in shallow right center the Philadelphia Phillies were the National League Champions for the third time and for the first time in 30 years.
A couple of weeks later the Phillies would celebrate their first World Series Championship ever, beating the Kansas City Royals in six games. Of the 16 original franchises dating back to 1903 they were the last one to finally get over the final hurdle. The Astros would take a little longer to finally get their first championship.
In this series there were four future Hall of Famers, five future managers, and about seven thousand wacky scenarios. The next season there was a players’ strike, a split season, and an ever-changing baseball world. By the mid 1990’s there were wild cards and expanded postseasons. But 1980 was a reminder why the baseball postseason was special.