“For you guys who don’t think we can win four in a row, do us a favor. Don’t get dressed.”
So read the sign in the Dodgers clubhouse on Friday, October 3rd. L.A trailed the Astros by three games with three remaining in the season. Anything less than a four-game sweep would end their year.
Game 1 – October 3rd, 1980
Despite the inspiration, the Dodgers were in trouble late in Friday’s opener. Alan Ashby’s 8th inning sacrifice fly gave the Astros a 2-1 lead and L.A. had just two at-bats left to save their season.
Houston starter Ken Forsch, whose 2nd inning single off Don Sutton gave the Astros a 1-0 lead, set L.A. down in order in the bottom of the 8th and was scheduled to lead off the top of the 9th. Astros manager Bill Virdon opted to let Forsch hit for himself against Valenzuela, who had still not yielded a run on the season and Forsch lined out to 2nd baseman Davey Lopes.
Forsch got Jay Johnstone to ground out to open the 9th, but a Rick Monday single was followed by an error on Rafael Landestoy. Two batters later, Ron Cey singled to left field to tie the game.
Valenzuela again set the Astros down in order in the top of the 10th inning and Virdon again sent Forsch out in the bottom half of the frame. Former Astro catcher Joe Ferguson sent Forsch’s first pitch into the stands over a leaping Cesar Cedeno in left-center field for a walk-off homer, giving the Dodgers new life. Ferguson celebrated his game winning homer by throwing his batting helmet into the air as he rounded 3rd base and, after crossing home plate, picked up Lasorda in a bear hug before mobbed by his teammates and blowing kisses to the fans.
“Sometimes we don’t look pretty out there,” said Ferguson, “but this team has shown more heart than any team I’ve ever played on.”
Game 2 – October 4th, 1980
The two teams squared off the following afternoon with L.A.’s Jerry Reuss against Houston’s Nolan Ryan. L.A. took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second when Derrel Thomas singled to left to score Steve Garvey. Art Howe’s RBI single in the 4th tied the game at one, but Garvey led off the top of the 5th with a home run, his 26th, and Reuss shut out the Astros the rest of the way for his 18th win.
“I’ve never seen him more aggressive,” Lasorda said of his starter. “I’ve seen him throw better, but he went after every batter today.”
The win meant Houston’s lead was down to just a single game with one game remaining. A Dodger win on Sunday afternoon would force a one-game playoff in Los Angeles, while a Houston win wrap secure the division title.
“The fact is this: We can win it tomorrow. They can’t,” said Morgan. “We win tomorrow and it’s all over. The percentages are in our favor. The Dodgers haven’t beaten us four straight all year and I don’t see them doing it.”
Game 3 – October 5th, 1980
For game three of the series, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda started 14-game winner Burt Hooton, while Houston skipper Bill Virdon went with Vern Ruhle, who was dealing with a finger injury he suffered when he cut his right index finger on a nail in the dugout on Friday. The wound required two stitches to close and left Ruhle unsure how long he could go in the season’s final game.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a factor, but I’m going to let the trainer work on it,” Ruhle said. “Obviously I can’t pitch with a Band-Aid on, but I think I’ll be all right. If I can’t (pitch) I’m sure Joaquin will be ready.”
In addition to Ruhle, Joe Morgan injured himself in Friday’s game sliding back into 1st base on a pickoff attempt. The Dodgers weren’t faring much better though as Davey Lopes was battling a sore neck and both Ron Cey and Dusty Baker were dealing with hamstring pulls. But minor injuries wouldn’t keep anyone out of game of this magnitude.
It didn’t take long for the Astros to get to Hooton or to practice a little gamesmanship. Cesar Cedeno led off the top of the 2nd inning by testing Ron Cey’s sore hamstring with a bunt down the 3rd base line that turned into an infield single. A stolen base and a Hooton error put runners on the corners with no one out. Alan Ashby singled to center to score Cedeno and Craig Reynolds singled to right to give Houston a 2-0 lead and chase Hooton from the game.
Ruhle wasn’t around much longer than Hooton but it wasn’t the Dodgers that knocked him out of the game, it was his finger. The stitches opened up early and by the third inning he had to come out of the game.
“I went as far as I could as hard as I could,” he said afterwards. “It started breaking by the first inning, but it didn’t start bleeding. It just started tearing downward and by the last two pitches I made, I just didn’t see any point in going on. I would have been hurting the team.”
Houston increased their lead to 3-0 in the top of the 4th but the Dodgers got one back in the bottom of the 5th on a Davey Lopes single off Joaquin Andujar. Down 3-1, Lasorda once again called on Fernando Valenzuela to keep his team in the game and once again, the rookie delivered, throwing two scoreless innings. When he was due to hit in the bottom of the 7th with two men on base, the 19-year-old Valenzuela was replaced by 42-year-old Manny Mota, whom the Dodgers activated as a pinch-hitter in September. This presented a slight problem as Mota was also the Dodgers’ 1st base coach. Ever the strategist, Lasorda sent pitcher Don Sutton to take Mota’s place in the coach’s box while Mota took Valenzuela’s place at the plate against Joe Sambito.
The two had faced each other on September 10th and Sambito had induced Mota to ground into a double play in the 9th inning of a 6-5 Houston victory. This time, Mota stroked an RBI single to right field to cut the lead to 3-2 and end Sambito’s afternoon. Houston manager Bill Virdon summoned Frank LaCorte from the bullpen, who retired Lopes and Dusty Baker to escape the inning.
Steve Garvey to hit a ground ball to 3rd baseman Enos Cabell to open the 8th inning, but Cabell couldn’t handle it and Garvey was safe at 1st base to bring up Cey. Conventional wisdom called for Cey to bunt, especially since he was nursing a sore hamstring, which not only prevented him from running well but also sapped a lot of his power. Cey squared around to bunt twice, but couldn’t get it down. He then worked the count full and when LaCorte delivered his next pitch Cey drove it straight into his left ankle. Now both legs were hurting, but the count was still full and Cey looked to put a ball in the gap.
He fouled off two more pitches before LaCorte delivered a fastball that caught too much of the plate and Cey pounced on it, sending the ball deep to left field. “You gotta be kidding me,” Sambito thought as the ball sailed into the left field seats.
The two run homer, Cey’s 28th of the season, gave L.A. a 4-3 lead, but there was plenty of drama left. Houston put two on in the top of the 9th, which brought Lasorda out of the Dodgers dugout and drew a round of boos at the prospect of his removing Steve Howe from the game, who had replaced Valenzuela in the 8th. But the boos turned to cheers when starter and ersatz 1st base coach Don Sutton emerged from the Dodger bullpen and trotted to the mound. Two pitches later, Sutton got Denny Walling to bounce out to Lopes to end the game and force a one Monday afternoon playoff at Dodger Stadium.
“This team’s going to grow up a lot tomorrow,” said Morgan, “or it’ll die. It’ll be strong, I’ll tell you that, one way or another, or it’ll die.”
Game 4 – October 6th, 1980
The man charged with staving off the Astros’ death was knuckleballer Joe Niekro. In 14 big league seasons, Niekro had thrown more than 2,100 innings and not one of them had come in the postseason. Whether or not that streak continued was up to him, but his two previous outings against L.A. had not gone well.
“The challenge is out there, and I’ve got to go out and get it,” Niekro said. “I accept it. If we had to have a playoff game, I wanted to pitch it.”
Niekro was gunning for his 2nd straight 20-win season while the Dodgers starter, Dave Goltz, was trying to redeem himself after not living up to the free-agent deal he signed at the beginning of the season.
“I’m excited about being given the chance to win it,” Goltz said. “I’ve never been in a situation where a game meant so much. I’m really looking forward to this.”
Astros General Manager Tal Smith got caught up in the excitement as well, but he also could have lived without it. “It’s just like a World Series,” he said. “Three of the most exciting game you’ll ever see, especially if you’re an impartial observer, which I’m not.” Few of the 51,000 fans people who showed up for the playoff game were impartial, either and there was another biased observer sitting on the Dodgers bench.
Ron Cey woke up on Monday morning with a badly swollen ankle, the result of the previous day’s foul ball, and was in enough pain that Lasorda had no choice to remove him from the lineup. For a team already missing Reggie Smith and Bill Russell it was a big blow and the first sign of trouble for the Dodgers.
The next sign came when Terry Puhl led off the game with a ground ball to Lopes, who had the ball pop out of his glove for an error. Enos Cabell then singled to center and stole 2nd. After two batters, Houston had runners on 2nd and 3rd with no one out and the Dodger bullpen began to stir. Two batters later, Jose Cruz hit a ground ball to Mickey Hatcher, who had taken Cey’s place at 3rd base. Hatcher came home with the throw but Joe Ferguson couldn’t hold onto it after Puhl collided with him. Cesar Cedeno’s groundout gave the Astros a 2-0 lead despite their only having one hit.
While Goltz and the Dodgers looked a bit shaky in the early going, Niekro was anything but, retiring the first six batters he faced on the strength of an active and unpredictable knuckleball. In the top of the 3rd, Art Howe faced Goltz with two out and a man on and deposited Goltz’s offering into the left field seats to give his team a 4-0 lead. For Howe, it was his 10 home run of the season and the 33rd, and most important of his career.
Houston added three more the following inning and Niekro handled the rest. When Jack Perconte came up with two outs in the 9th inning and his team down 7-1, the Dodger Stadium organist broke into the inspirational World War II tune, “We did it before and we can do it again.” But there was no miracle comeback this time. Perconte popped out to Dave Bergman at 1st base and the Astros, for the first time in their 19-year existence, were headed to the playoffs.
“No team beats us four in a row,” said Joe Morgan. “No team does that to us. Our pitching is too good. The Dodgers learned that today, no matter what kind of momentum they thought they had.”