Tuesday, October 4, 2011

1973 NLCS: Minor Miracle

How They Got Here
It was the type of season that happens every once in a while, where you take a look around at the playoff teams and ask "are we sure these are the best teams?" The team in question in 1973 was the New York Mets, who somehow snuck into the postseason that year.

On August 5, the Mets were 11.5 games back in the NL East. What's worse, they were 12 games under .500, a mediocre team in a mediocre division. Well, something clicked, and the Mets crawled back to the .500 mark by the end of the year. Most years, this would have been cause for optimism, but in 1973 in the NL East, it made you a contender for the division crown. And so it came to be that, after a win over the Cubs on the final day of the season, the Mets made it to the NLCS with a less-than-stellar record of 82-79.

Meanwhile, the Reds won the West by 3.5 games over the Dodgers. The Reds won 99 games during the regular season, which would have put them 17 games ahead of the Mets had the two teams been in the same division. But they weren't. Instead, they were opponents in the NLCS.

While the Reds had most of the players that would make up the Big Red Machine a few years later, they were a little light in the pitching department. Meanwhile, the Mets had little in the way of hitting, but had a good pitching staff, led by Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, who was on the hill for Game 1. Seaver was brilliant, keeping the Reds off-balance all game long. He threw two bad pitches all game; unfortunately, those bad pitches were to Pete Rose in the 8th and Johnny Bench in the 9th, and both became home runs, leading to a 2-1 Reds victory.

Having seized the advantage, the Reds promptly gave it away, losing two straight games as the Mets got two more complete games from their starters. Now, the heavily favored Reds had to win two straight in New York. They got the first win they needed in Game 4, finally getting to New York's bullpen and winning 2-1 in 12 innings. Game 5 featured the Game 1 starters in Seaver and Jack Billingham.

The Game
Despite their disparate records and the relative skills of the teams, both teams knew anything could happen in a do-or-die game. While the Reds were the better team, they were also a team that had never taken the Next Step, losing the World Series in 1970 and 1972. The Mets, meanwhile, had miraculously won the title in 1969, and while they hadn't reached the postseason since, they still had many players from that championship team.

Both teams had their chances in the first inning, loading the bases with less than two outs. But perhaps betraying their experience levels, the Reds went scoreless in the first, while the Mets got two.

The Reds fought back and had tied the game against Seaver by the fifth inning. Then the Mets struck back. They had one run in with the bases loaded when the ageless Willie Mays came to the plate. Well, maybe ageless isn't the right word, as Mays had looked anything but graceful during his triumphant return to New York. But, 22 years after playing in the World Series for the Giants, he helped put the Mets on a track back to a Series appearance with a run-scoring single. The Mets eventually ended up with four runs in the fifth.

That was enough for Seaver. Another Mets run in the 6th made it 7-2, and Seaver stayed in until the Reds loaded the bases in the ninth with one out. Seaver tapped out and Tug McGraw came in for the final two outs to send the Mets back to the World Series.

After surprising the Reds, the Mets continued their surprising play by taking the defending champion Athletics to seven games in the World Series. New York had the tying run at the plate before Wayne Garrett popped out to end the series. Though they came short of a title, the Mets did establish one record that will be tough to break: they are still the worst team to ever make it to the World Series.

The Rundown
What I'm doing.

The list so far:
19. 1973 NLCS: New York 7, Cincinnati 2
20. 1987 NLCS: St. Louis 6, San Francisco 0
21. 1988 NLCS: Los Angeles 6, New York 0
22. 2004 ALCS: Boston 10, New York 3
23. 1986 ALCS: Boston 8, California 1
24: 1996 NLCS: Atlanta 15, St. Louis 0

Still to come:
1972 NLCS: Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh
1972 ALCS: Detroit vs. Oakland
1973 ALCS: Baltimore vs. Oakland
1976 ALCS: Kansas City vs. New York
1977 ALCS: Kansas City vs. New York
1980 NLCS: Houston vs. Philadelphia
1981 NCLS: Los Angeles vs. Montreal
1982 ALCS: California vs. Milwaukee
1984 NLCS: Chicago vs. San Diego
1985 ALCS: Kansas City vs. Toronto
1991 NLCS: Atlanta vs. Pittsburgh
1992 NLCS: Atlanta vs. Pittsburgh
2003 NLCS: Chicago vs. Florida
2003 ALCS: Boston vs. New York
2004 NLCS: Houston vs. St. Louis
2006 NLCS: New York vs. St. Louis
2007 ALCS: Boston vs. Cleveland
2008 ALCS: Boston vs. Tampa Bay

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