Monday, December 12, 2011

1972 NLCS: A truly wild ending

How they got here
Two truly great teams climbed to the top of the National League in 1972. Ignoring the league-wide offensive shortage, the defending World Champion Pirates barely had to sweat in winning the NL East by 11 games. It's no wonder, too; their .274 team batting average was the only mark in the league above .260, and they finished third in the National League in runs scored and runs allowed. They had skill, they had championship experience, and they entered the postseason on a high, with right fielder Roberto Clemente getting his 3,000th career hit in his final regular-season at bat that year.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati had compiled most of the pieces that would make them known as the Big Red Machine later that decade. After getting to the World Series in 1970, the Reds fell below .500 in 1971 before bouncing back in '72 to win the West by 10.5 games. Their offense was well-balanced, a mix of power, patience, and speed, while manager Sparky "Captain Hook" used the bullpen to perfection.

It had the potential to be a great NLCS, and the teams lived up to that potential. After splitting the first two games in Pittsburgh, the Pirates came back to win Game 3 in Cincinnati. Facing elimination, the Reds cruised to a win in Game 4, setting up a deciding Game 5. The game featured a rematch of the Game 1 starters. Pittsburgh sent 1971 World Series hero Blass to the mound, while Cincinnati countered with 21-year-old Don Gullett.

The Game
Pittsburgh hardly had time to dream about a second straight World Series. It changed that quickly. Holding a 3-2 lead entering the bottom of the ninth, the Pirates sent reliable closer Dave Giusti to the mound to try to get the save. The first batter he faced was Johnny Bench, who quite quickly tied the game with a home run to right.

Bench's home run finally erased the lead the Pirates had held since the second inning, when three straight hits had put them up 2-0. Pete Rose answered with an rbi double in the 3rd for Cincinnati, but Pittsburgh bounced right back with a run in the fourth, knocking Gullett out of the game in the process. After a home run by Cesar Geronimo made it 3-2, Blass was in control before coming out in the eighth.

But then Bench homered of Giusti, and the game changed completely. Two more Cincinnati hits knocked Pittsburgh's closer out of the game, and Bob Moose was brought in to try to fight his way out of a deep hole. He got the first two batters he was asked to face before Cincinnati sent Hal McRae up to pinch hit with two outs. McRae then became a footnote to history, as a wild pitch brought George Foster home from third with the series-winning run.


For Pittsburgh, the loss in the 1972 NLCS led to heartache. After pitching so brilliantly for Pittsburgh for seven years, Blass suddenly and inexplicably lost the strike zone in 1973. He never recovered, his wildness forcing him to retire; to this day, a pitcher suddenly losing the ability to throw strikes is said to have come down with Steve Blass Disease.

But that wasn't the worst. After getting his 3,000th his last at bat of the season, putting an exclamation mark on a career of brilliant play, Clemente struggled a bit in the NLCS, batting only .235. In his final plate appearance, he was intentionally walked in the 8th inning of Game 5. 81 days later, on New Years Eve, the plane he was on carrying supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua crashed into the Caribbean Sea. Pittsburgh, and all of baseball for that matter, mourned the loss of their star.

As for the Reds, they advanced to their second World Series in three years. Facing an upstart Oakland team, the two played a truly classic World Series, with Oakland prevailing in seven games after six of the games were decided by one run. The loss merely inspired the Reds, and after two more years of falling short, they won consecutive titles in 1975 and 1976, laying claim to being the best team in National League history.

The best part of this clip is a super-young Al Michaels making the excited call of Bench's home run
What I'm doing.

The list so far:

7. 1972 NLCS: Cincinnati 4, Pittsburgh 3
8. 1981 NLCS: Los Angeles 2, Montreal 1
9. 1982 ALCS: Milwaukee 4, California 3
10. 2008 ALCS: Tampa Bay 3, Boston 1
11. 1984 NLCS: San Diego 6, Chicago 3
12. 2003 NLCS: Florida 9, Chicago 6
13. 2004 NLCS: St. Louis 5, Houston 2
14. 1972 ALCS: Oakland 2, Detroit 1
15. 1973 ALCS: Oakland 3, Baltimore 0
16. 1985 ALCS: Kansas City 6, Toronto 2
17. 2007 ALCS: Boston 11, Cleveland 2
18. 1991 NLCS: Atlanta 4, Pittsburgh 0
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:
1976 ALCS: Kansas City vs. New York
1977 ALCS: Kansas City vs. New York
1980 NLCS: Houston vs. Philadelphia
1992 NLCS: Atlanta vs. Pittsburgh
2003 ALCS: Boston vs. New York
2006 NLCS: New York vs. St. Louis

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