Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in October 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.
I am here to sing the praises of the 1980 NLCS. All five of the games are on YouTube, and I recommend visiting (or revisiting) all of them. The games were spectacular, and the baseball is nearly unrecognizable to a modern fan. There were 16 bunts – two of them for singles – and just one home run. There were six triples, and only 56 strikeouts by both teams. The ball was constantly in play, and the games were decided by defenders and base runners.
The two combatants were the Philadelphia Phillies and the Houston Astros. The Phillies had lost three straight NLCS in 1976-78, and had not reached the World Series since 1950. They had the best player in the league, third baseball Mike Schmidt (48 home runs and a 171 OPS+) and the best pitcher in the league, Steve Carlton (24-9, 2.34 ERA). The Phillies won the division by a single game, beating the Expos 2-of-3 the final weekend.
In the West, the Astros entered that weekend with a 3 game lead over the Dodgers, and promptly lost them all in Dodger Stadium before winning a one-game playoff, also in LA, on Monday. The Astros were a more balanced team – their best players were outfielders Jose Cruz, Cesar Cedeno, and Terry Puhl. They had been devastated by a tragic stroke suffered by ace pitcher J.R. Richard in July – he was out for the season and, it turned out, his career was finished.
The series also featured baseball’s two most famous players – Phillies first baseman Pete Rose and Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan. Though still considered a team leader and spiritual inspiration, Rose had a terrible season — .282 with one home run. Ryan, signed for a record deal in the previous off-season, was better than that (11 wins with a 3.35 ERA in the world’s best pitcher’s park) though not yet earning his lofty contract.
Game 1, Tuesday October 7
The series was best-of-5, starting on Tuesday in Philadelphia. The Phillies had Monday off, while the Astros played Game 1 the day after their playoff on the other side of the country.
Game 1 was the most ordinary contest, so we shall not dwell on it. The Astros scratched out a run in the third, then Carlton and ace reliever Tug McGraw shut them down for a 3-1 victory. The key hit was 2-run homer from slugger Greg Luzinski.
Game 2, Wednesday October 8
Ryan got the call, facing Dick Ruthven. The game followed a similar pattern, with the visitors cobbling together a run in the third (walk, bunt, single), before doubles by Schmidt and Luzinski and a single by Maddox gave the Phillies a 2-1 lead after four. At this point it seemed inevitable that the star-laden Phillies would make quick work of the series.
The Astros tied the game in the 7th when Ryan drew a two-out walk and scored on a Puhl double that reached the wall in right center. Ryan expended a lot of effort hauling around the bases – a good relay would have had him at the plate – and lasted only three batters in the seventh (single, bunt single, bunt sacrifice) before his bullpen got out of the jam. Both teams scored in the eighth – the Astros on a Cruz single, the Phillies on a Garry Maddox single – and the game remained 3-3 after nine.
The Astros put up four runs in the top of the 10th – their typical collection of ground singles and bunts punctuated by a Dave Bergman triple, and the Phillies single run in the bottom half made the final score 7-4.
Game 3, Friday October 10
After a day off, the series moved to Houston for the first post-season game ever held indoors, the Phillies’ Larry Christenson against 20-game winner Joe Niekro. Not surprisingly, runs proved difficult to come by. Meaning: impossible. Although both teams got runs in scoring position a few times, the game was scoreless in the bottom of the 11th when Joe Morgan led off with a triple off the right field wall off McGraw. Morgan, limping the entire series with a bad knee, also had a big double off McGraw in Game 2. After two intentional walks, Denny Walling won the game with a shallow fly ball.
It is a challenge, 37 years after the events, to convey just how tense all of these games were. Each team relied on singles and doubles, and bunts to get a run or two at a time. And the crowds – at both stadiums, but especially indoors in Houston – created a cacophonous soundtrack to every pitch.
The Astros were one win away.
Game 4, Saturday October 11
Houston sent Vern Ruhle to the mound to try to close out the series, facing the great Carlton. The Astros managed single runs in the third and fourth, and Carlton departed after walking three men in the sixth. After seven innings the Phillies were down 2-0, six outs from elimination, and had not scored a run in 18 innings.
Before we continue, let’s revisit the craziest play of the series, of most any series, which probably had no effect on the outcome.
After Bake McBride and Manny Trillo led off the fourth with singles, Maddox hit a soft line drive back to Ruhle who, according to home plate umpire Doug Harvey’s initial ruling, trapped the ball. Ruhle threw to first for the apparent out. Art Howe, the first baseman, believed that Ruhle caught the ball and ran down to tag second base for (if Howe was right) a triple play. After Harvey conferred with his first base umpire Ed Vargo, he changed his call to a catch by Ruhle. So, triple play!
Not so fast. The six umpires conferred with NL president Chub Feeney, sitting in the first row puffing a big cigar, and changed their call again. Satisfying no one, the new ruling was double play – a catch, but McBride, who had reached third at the time second base was tagged, was ruled safe at second because (according to Harvey) he had been unfairly confused by the original call. The entire delay took 14 minutes. Both teams protested the game. Larry Bowa’s ground ball unceremoniously ended the inning.
The Phillies finally broke through with four singles and a fly ball in the eighth, scoring three runs and taking the lead. They kept that lead into the ninth, but the Astros tied it up again with (what else?) a walk, a bunt, and single by Terry Puhl. For the third straight game, we were going to the tenth inning.
The Phillies bats broke through quickly, with run scoring doubles by Luzinski and Trillo and a 5-3 lead. A few minutes later, the crazy game ended. The Phillies dropped their protest, and Feeney (who had made the ruling) denied the Astros’.
Game 5, Sunday October 12
Fittingly, the series went to the final game. The Astros had Ryan on the hill, squaring off against 22-year-old Marty Bystrom, who made his big league debut in September and won five games in the pennant race but had not pitched in 12 days.
Houston got the crowd roaring in the first when Jose Cruz, fabulous all week, laced a run-scoring double down the right field line. Philadelphia came right back in the second on a single by Bob Boone that plated two runs, and it stayed 2-1 through five.
In the bottom of the sixth, Denny Walling led off with a fly ball off the glove of Greg Luzinski for a two-base error. Alan Ashby singled him home, chasing Bystrom. Tied again, and it stayed that way when Ryan retired the Phillies in the seventh.
In the bottom of the inning the Astros broke through against Christenson, starting with a single from Puhl (.526 in the series), a sacrifice, a walk, another single, a wild pitch, and a triple from Art Howe. This made it 5-2 Houston, the crowd was unhinged, and Nolan Ryan went to the mound with six outs to go.
Nolan Ryan brought a lot of skills to battle over his spectacular career, but he sometimes struggled fielding his position. This affected him in Game 2, and it affected him again now. After Bowa led off with a bloop single past the shortstop, Boone hit a ground ball off Ryan’s glove (a tough chance, but usually a double play ball). Greg Gross bunted for another hit, loading the bases, and Pete Rose worked a walk on a full count, driving in a run and finishing Ryan’s night. After a ground out and a single tied the score, a Manny Trillo triple made it 7-5 and now the Phillies needed six outs.
Tug McGraw, who pitched in every game of the series, came in once again to nail it down. Except, no.
The Astros put together four singles, capped by the great Cruz, to tie the game again. ABC’s announcers – Keith Jackson, Don Drysdale and Howard Cosell – had been exclaiming all weekend that they had never seen games like this before, one after the other. Still, no resolution in sight.
Neither team scored in the ninth, giving us a fourth straight extra-inning games. The Phillies broke through with doubles by Del Unser and Garry Maddox in the top of the 10th to take an 8-7 lead, and the Astros, finally, could not answer in the bottom half.
When you hear grumpy people grousing about all the strikeouts and home runs today, the lack of singles and triples and defense and base running, this series is what they are talking about.
The games were spectacular.