Four teams, two spots, one weekend.
That’s what the 1980 pennant race came down to in the National League. The American League race produced some drama, but the NL pennant race was outstanding and it doesn’t get its due. It had everything, including two divisions that came down to the final weekend. Here are seven reasons the 1980 pennant race was fantastic.
The Pirates Fade
The Pirates were the defending World Series champs and a consensus pick to repeat. They had their core back and held a 5 game lead in the NL East in May. By the morning of September 1st that lead was down to just a half game and they were in a tailspin.
From August 25th through September 9, the Pirates lost 13 of 15 games and were basically out of the race. The Buccos went 10-17 in September, enduring a five game losing streak at beginning of month and a six game skid to end the month, turning half game lead into an eight game deficit by the end of September.
“This is the first time in my 10 years as a big league manager that a club I managed didn’t have a good September,” said Pirates Manager Chuck Tanner. “That has been the big difference. We haven’t won like we used to in September.”
The Astros Inner Turmoil
The 1980 Houston Astros had an extremely talented roster, including one of the top pitching staffs in baseball. Then J.R. Richard went down.
That certainly would be enough to torpedo a lot of teams, but not this Astros team. There was another situation brewing under the surface, however, and it threatened to rip the team apart.
In his book, Joe Morgan – A Life in Baseball, Morgan recounts how he called a players-only meeting in August after a series against the Padres in San Diego. He challenged his teammates to be less selfish and he singled people out. It worked.
Immediately following the meeting, Houston went on a tear and gained a three game lead in the NL West. Everyone was happy according to Morgan except manager Bill Virdon, who felt Morgan had overstepped his bounds. Their relationship changed after that. As the team started winning, players would talk about how much of an influence Morgan was which made the problem worse.
Virdon began benching Morgan late in games and the players noticed. It was a situation that would come back to bite them later on.
The Montreal Expos
As talented as the Astros were, they had nothing on the Montreal Expos. Future Hall-of-Famers Andre Dawson and Gary Carter anchored a lineup that also included Larry Parrish, Ron Leflore, Ellis Valentine, Rodney Scott and a young outfielder up from the minors named Tim Raines.
The Expos went 19-9 in September, thanks in large part to outstanding pitching. The Montreal staff threw six shutouts in September and allowed a major league low 78 runs. Staff ace Steve Rogers made six starts in 24 days, going 4-2 with four complete games.
Another key for the Expos was taking two of three from Pittsburgh in mid-September. After splitting the first two, Montreal won the crucial third game to grab a one game lead in the division while pushing Pittsburgh down to third place.
“I don’t think the Pirates will give us any more trouble,” Jerry White told the media after the 4-0 win. “Philadelphia is now the team we’ve got to worry about.”
The Phillies Surge
While Expos were surging, so were the Phillies. Six games back on August 11th, they managed to crawl back into a first place tie by the end of play on September 1st. Mike Schmidt took over from there. From September 1st through the end of the season, Schmidt hit .298 with 13 homers and 28 RBI. His hot bat helped the Phillies go 19-10 in September.
On the mound, they got a big big contribution from an unexpected source. Marty Bystom came to the Phillies an an amateur free-agent in 1976. After winning 6- games in 14 starts at AAA Oklahoma City, Bystrom went 5-0 in September of 1980 pitching some of the most important innings in franchise history. His 1.50 ERA earned him NL Pitcher of the Month honors.
“How good is Marty?” Phillies manager Dallas Green asked the media after his final win of the month. “Pressure doesn’t bother Marty. He has that look in his eye. A look of confidence.”
The Expos/Phillies Showdown
Great months by both the Phillies and the Expos set up a showdown in Montreal on the final weekend of the season. There was a tie at the top of the division and whoever won two of three in the series would be off the the NLCS.
“They’ll have to take it away from us in our own park,” said Andre Dawson. “We’re loose and confident and we’d just as soon get it over in the first two days of the series.”
The Phillies sent 16-game winner Dick Ruthven to the mound while the Expos countered with their own 16-game winner, Scott Sanderson. Not surprisingly, Pete Rose got things started for the Phillies by singling to lead off the game. He advanced to 3rd on a Bake McBride double and scored on a Schmidt sac fly to give the Phillies a 1-0 lead.
In the top of the 6th, Schmidt again provided the heroics, this time with a solo home run. Dawson’s sac fly in the bottom of the inning cut the Phillies lead to one, but Tug McGraw came on in the 8th inning and struck out five of the six batters he faced to notch his 20th save and give the Phillies a one game lead in the division.
“Now it’s our advantage,” Schmidt said. “The pressure stays on us but they must be feeling a bit of it themselves.”
“It’s very simple now,” said Expos manager Dick Williams. “We win tomorrow or we have to face the winter with the knowledge that we’re only a second place ballclub.”
Montreal grabbed an early lead in game two and was clinging to a 4-3 advantage in the top of the 9th when Bob Boone‘s two-out single off Woody Fryman scored Bake McBride to tie the game.
McGraw shut out the Expos in the 9th and 10th innings and in the top of the 11th, Mike Schmidt faced Stan Bahnsen with one out and Rose on second.
Schmidt delivered perhaps the biggest home run in Phillies history since Dick Sisler‘s shot on the final day of 1950. The 2-run homer won the game for the Phillies and sent them to the NLCS.
“This will give me a heckuva lot more character for future pressure baseball,” Schmidt said. “We have a bigger hill to climb ahead of us. I’ve yet to prove myself in a playoff and World Series.”
The Astros Meltdown
So the Phillies were in but they still didn’t know who they would play. The Astros held a three game advantage over the Dodgers heading into the final weekend of the season and the two faced off in Los Angeles for a three game series. All Houston had to do was win one game and they would qualify for their first ever post-season appearance.
In game one, Houston had a one-run lead in the bottom of the 9th and their closer Dave Smith ready in the bullpen, but Virdon stayed with Ken Forsch instead. The Dodgers tied it with 2-outs in the 9th and won it on Joe Ferguson‘s walk-off homer off Forsch in the 10th. A young Fernando Valenzuela pitched two scoreless innings in relief to get the win for L.A.
“He started me with a curve and then came with the fastball,” Garvey told the press after the game. “I was sure it was gone when I hit it.”
That set up a Sunday showdown. A Houston win meant they won the division. A Dodgers win would force a one game playoff.
“Sunday can’t be any tougher than facing Reuss,” said Virdon. “We’re not worried about numbers or statistics. We just need one more win.”
Houston again took a lead in the third game and again the Dodgers fought back in the late innings. Ron Cey’s 8th inning, 2-run homer proved to be the difference. Don Sutton, who started the first game of the series, got the last out and earned his first save of the season.
“We don’t have the killer instinct sometimes,’ said Morgan. “We got ahead 3-0 the same way we have all year, by slapping singles, stealing bases and bunting, but then we sat back and expected our pitchers to hold them. You can’t do that.”
One of the main reasons Morgan was in Houston was to provide veteran leadership, the kind Houston was lacking. This was his biggest test.
“This team is going to grow up a lot in the next day,” he said. “It will be strong or it will die.”
The Astros/Dodgers Playoff
More than 50,000 people packed Dodger Stadium on Monday, October 6th for the one-game playoff to determine the NL West champion.
The Astros sent 19-game winner Joe Niekro to the mound, while the Dodgers countered with Dave Goltz, signed as a free-agent in the 1979 off-season. Goltz recorded double-digit wins for six straight seasons in Minnesota but his first season in Dodger Blue was a disappointment. He entered the most important game of the season with a 7-10 record.
Houston took Morgan’s words to heart and scored two runs in the first inning on two singles, a stolen base and two ground outs. Art Howe hit a two-run homer in the 3rd and the Astros plated three more in the 4th to take a 7-0 lead.
Seven runs were plenty for Niekro as he allowed just six hits en route to a complete game 7-1 final.
“I was confident. I was relaxed,” said Niekro after winning his 20th game. “After the first two innings I found I had a good knuckleball.”
As the champagne flowed in the visitors clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, Virdon finally let his guard down.
“I’m probably as relaxed right now as I’ve been in the last four days,” he said.
Like the regular season race, the 1980 ALCS was a bit anticlimactic, but the NLCS continued the regular season excitement. The Phillies beat the Astros in five thrilling games with the last four going to extra innings. In the end, the Phillies prevailed and went on to win their first ever World Series championship.