Wednesday, April 20, 2011

1980 NL West: Knuckled Under

The 1980 National League West race was a tight-three team race all season long. The Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, and Los Angeles Dodgers took turns taking the division lead, with nobody gaining a lead larger than 3.5 games. With the Astros and Dodgers scheduled to play each other the final series of the season, it seemed pretty clear that those final three games would decide the pennant.

Houston almost made those games irrelevant, though, winning two out of three against Cincinnati then sweeping Atlanta to enter the final weekend with a three-game lead over the Dodgers. Playing at home, the Dodgers would need a sweep to force a one-game tiebreaker against the Astros.

In the first game, the Astros were one out from the division title when Ron Cey went to the plate for the Dodgers with runners on first and second. Cey momentarily saved the Dodgers season, driving home pinch-runner Rudy Law with the tying run to send the game to the 10th inning. Once there, catcher Joe Ferguson led off the 10th to give the Dodgers the first of the three wins they needed.

In game 2, Steve Garvey's 4th-inning home run off Nolan Ryan gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead, and they would win by that amount to cut their deficit to one game entering the final game. Game 3 featured another late Astros lead, with Houston up 3-1 entering the bottom of the seventh. The Dodgers got one back in the seventh, but left the bases loaded. In the eighth, though, Garvey and Cey struck again. Garvey led off the inning by reaching on an error, and then Cey hit a home run to provide the final runs in a 4-3 win. Remarkably, the Dodgers had won three straight to force a tiebreaker.

The Game
The coinflip earlier in the season gave the Dodgers the home game for the tiebreaker, so the two teams stayed right where they were for game 163. It seemed like momentum would be on the Dodgers' side after their three straight dramatic victories to force the tiebreaker game. However, the Dodgers' late push left them with limited options for pitchers, and Dave Goltz, he of the 7-11 record, was tabbed to start. Houston, meanwhile, sent their second-best starter, knuckler Joe Niekro, to the mound.

Whether the Dodgers had used up their emotion and luck in the previous three games, or Houston simply had the better pitching matchup, this game wasn't close from the start. The Astros used two Dodger errors to score twice in the first, then added two more in the third. Then with Goltz out of the game, the Astros scored three more times in the fourth.

That was all the runs the Astros would need. While the previous three games had featured late rallies by the Dodgers, Neikro wasn't going to let that happen this time around. He held the Dodgers to a single unearned run on just six hits, pitching a complete game for his 20th win of the season. With the 7-1 victory, the Astros advanced to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

They had backed in to the playoffs a bit, having slumped at the end before finally winning the tiebreaker game, but the Astros were still confident entering the League Championship Series. They were facing the Philadelphia Phillies, who had also won their division in the final weekend of the season.

The Astros and Phillies then played one of the most dramatic LCS's in Major League history. After Philadelphia won Game 1 behind the brilliant pitching of Steve Carlton, the Astros won the next two games in extra innings. Needing to win both of the final two games in Houston to advance, the Phillies did just that, winning both in extra innings to advance to the World Series, where they won their first championship. The Astros, meanwhile, would have to wait 25 years to get to the World Series.

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