Monday, May 23, 2011

1981 NLDS: 1980 Redux


We've already discussed how the 1981 postseason was all kinds of messed up, from the Yankees making the postseason despite being the fourth-best team in the AL East to the Cardinals missing the postseason despite being the best in the NL East. No team was more affected, though, than the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds finished with the best record in baseball in 1981, yet finished a close second in both halves of the season to miss out on postseason play. What should have been a St. Louis - Cincinnati matchup in the NLCS turned into Montreal playing the winner of the NL West Division Series.

That matchup featured first-half champion Los Angeles playing second-half champion Houston. The Dodgers and Astros had met the previous year in a one-game playoff to determine the West Division championship; this year, they would play a five-game series to determine the champion of the West.

The biggest difference between the two teams a year after their tense division battle was the Dodgers' addition of rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela. Valenzuela dominated the National League in his first season, using his unhittable screwball to rack up a league-high eight shutouts and win both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards.

The Dodgers, predictably, sent Valenzuela out for Game 1, with the Astros countering with flame thrower Nolan Ryan. The starters pitched to a draw, with the game tied 1-1 entering the ninth inning. The Dodgers pinch-hit for Valenzuela in the top of the ninth, but couldn't push a run across. Facing reliever Dave Stewart, the Astros won the game in the bottom of the ninth with a two-run home run by Alan Ashby.

Game 2 was another great pitching duel, with the Astros winning 1-0 in 11 innings. With the series shifting to Los Angeles, the Dodgers won the next two games, cruising to a 6-1 win in Game 3, and riding Valenzuela's complete game to a 2-1 victory in Game 4. The Game 5 matchup pitted Ryan, who had only given up two hits in his Game 1 win, against Jerry Reuss, who had thrown nine shutout innings for the Dodgers in Game 2.

The Game
1981 had been a good year for pitchers. The Dodgers and Astros each played in a home stadium that had a reputation for being pitcher-friendly parks. So it was no surprise that all five games were tight games where runs were hard to come by. Game 5 was no exception. The only early threats came when the Astros got runners on first and third with one out in the second, and when the Dodgers got runners on second and third with one out in the third. Both starters wiggled out of those jams, though, and settled in for a good early pitchers' duel.

The Dodgers finally broke the ice in the bottom of the sixth, stringing together a walk and three singles to take a 2-0 lead. Then, when it looked like the Astros were going to get out of the inning without further damage, Houston first baseman Denny Walling dropped a throw from third base, turning what would have been the third out into the third Dodger run.

The lead was only 3-0, but it might as well have been 13-0. The losing team had failed to score more than one run in all four previous games in the series, and Reuss had just finished his 15th consecutive scoreless inning in the series. With only three innings left to score three runs, things looked bleak for Houston.

Things got even worse the next inning, when the Dodgers added another run against the Houston bullpen. By then, it was over. Houston never seriously threatened again, and the Dodgers won to advance to the NLCS.

The Dodgers pitchers were on fire in the NLDS, and they continued that way through the rest of the playoffs. They had a staff era of 1.84 in the five-game win over the Expos in the NLCS, then held the Yankees to a .238 team batting average in the World Series, winning the title.

The great young pitchers kept it up for the next few seasons, with Valenzuela, Reuss, and Bob Welch leading the Dodgers to division titles in 1983 and 1985. Eventually, though, the heavy workload from the early part of their careers caught up to the pitchers, and all three were either off the team or injured spectators when the Dodgers won their next championship in 1988.

After peaking in 1980 and 81, the Astros fell off a bit for the next few years, rising again to win the division in 1986 before entering a dry spell that lasted until the mid-90s.

The rundown

22. Los Angeles 4, Houston 0 (1981 NL West Division Series)
23. Montreal 3, Philadelphia 0 (1981 NL East Division Series)
24. N.Y. Yankees 7, Milwaukee 3 (1981 AL East Division Series)
25. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
26. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
27. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
28. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
29. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
30. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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