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The 1980 NLCS: The Best League Championship Series Ever Played

The 1980 NLCS: The Best League Championship Series Ever Played

📁 MLB History, Sports History Articles 🕔28.September 2014

When you hear “Phillies-Astros” as a playoff matchup, it doesn’t jump off the charts as a marquee possibility. But in the 1980 NLCS, these two teams staged a playoff battle that ranks at or near the top of the greatest postseason series ever played.

1980 MLB season

Homefield advantage for the NLCS, which was then a best-of-five series, was set on a rotation basis. The first two games were scheduled for Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, with the final three over the weekend being at the Astrodome in Houston.

Philadelphia had gone to the season’s penultimate day to win the NL East, but the rotation worked out that their ace, Steve Carlton, was ready to go—Carlton had been scheduled to start the season finale, but was able to be held back by virtue of the clinching.

Houston missed the same opportunity for their ace Joe Niekro, missing three chances to clinch before finally turning to Niekro to win a one-game playoff on Monday. The Astros arrived in Philly for Tuesday’s game and would start Ken Forsch.

Forsch stepped up and pitched well, and the Astros scored first, on a two-out RBI single from Gary Woods in the third inning. But Forsch had been victimized all year by poor run support and that trend continued. Houston never scored again. In the bottom of the sixth, Pete Rose led off with a single and then Greg Luzinski hit a two-run shot to give the Phils a 2-1 lead.

The Phillies got an insurance run in the seventh when Garry Maddox singled, was bunted over and scored on a two-out pinch-hit from Greg Gross. Philadelphia closer Tug McGraw nailed down the last six outs. The 3-1 win was a good game…but little did anyone know that it was actually the worst of the five games in the 1980 NLCS.

Houston turned to veteran fireballer Nolan Ryan for Game 2 on Wednesday night, while Philadelphia sent Dick Ruthven to the mound. Once again, the Astros scored first in the third. Craig Reynolds drew a walk, moved up on a bunt and scored on a base hit by Terry Puhl.

Philadelphia again countered with two runs, this time coming back in the fourth inning. Mike Schmidt and Luzinski hit consecutive doubles to start the inning, and Maddox later picked up Luzinski with an RBI single.

The 2-1 score held to the seventh when Ryan somehow worked a walk with two outs. Puhl ripped a double and Ryan booked it all the way around, to score the tying run. In the bottom of the inning it looked like Philly would get the lead right back, with runners on second and third with one out. Houston manager Bill Virdon first summoned lefty Joe Sambito, who struck out Bake McBride. Then Virdon called on his righty, Dave Smith, to strike out Schmidt.

Houston took the lead with a double by Joe Morgan, who came around on a single by Cruz, but Philadelphia immediately countered, with Luzinski singling, moving up on a bunt by Manny Trillo and scoring on a base hit from Maddox. The Phils were then poised to win it in the ninth, with three straight one-out singles to load the bases. Houston reliever Frank Lacorte struck out Trillo and escaped.

The Astros broke it open in the tenth. Puhl singled and was bunted over. After an intentional walk, Cruz drove in the lead run, and an error by McBride in the outfield left runners on second and third. A productive out by Cesar Cedeno added another run. Before it was over, a Dave Bergman triple added two more and Houston was up 7-3. But it turned out they needed that insurance.

Larry Bowa singled to start the bottom of the 10th, and Bob Boone drew a walk. With one out, Rose grounded into a force play, and an error on the double play turn brought in a run. McBride drew a walk. Houston fans watched nervously as the bases were loaded and Schmidt came to the plate as the lead run. He lifted a fly ball to right, but it stayed in the park. Houston had an exhausting 7-4 win.

The teams took a day off—certainly needed for the Astros, who had been playing high-intensity games without a break for six straight days and went to Houston for Friday afternoon’s Game 3. Niekro made his first appearance of the NLCS, and staged a big-time pitchers’ duel with Philadelphia’s Larry Christenson.

Through ten innings, the only remote threat came in the third inning, when Rose was thrown out trying to score from third on an infield groundout. In the bottom of the 11th, Morgan came to the plate. Both Morgan and Rose had been integral parts of the Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine of the 1970s, which won four pennants and the World Series in 1975 and 1976. Their return to the postseason on opposite teams was one of the big storylines of this NLCS.

Rose played better during the series, but Morgan struck the biggest blow—he tripled to start the 1th and scored on Denny Walling’s sac fly. Houston was one game from the pennant. And a series that was already tense, full of back-and-forth, was about to go to a new level.

Carlton came back on three days’ rest with his team’s season on the line, while Houston gave the start to Vern Ruhle, a good young pitcher who had already beaten future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver in a key game down the stretch. Ruhle was again the equal of a future Hall of Famer in Carlton.

The game was scoreless through three, and the fourth inning got eventful. After consecutive singles to start the inning, Maddox hit a soft, low liner to the mound that Ruhle either caught or trapped, and threw to first. The ruling on the field was “no catch”, which would have meant Maddox was out, and runners were on second and third. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?

Only Houston had gone ahead and doubled off each runner just in case. The umpires conferred and determined Ruhle had caught the ball. They declared the runner at first to be doubled off, infuriating the Phillies, who put the game under protest. The also decided to leave the runner at second base, infuriating the Astros, who put the game under protest. It was a completely illogical solution and sounds like the kind of thing you come up with in a backyard game to split the difference.

In the bottom of the inning, Houston scored, with a leadoff double from Enos Cabell, who eventually came around to score on a sac fly from Art Howe. On that play, Woods, who had drawn a walk, was thrown out trying to take third and the game stayed at 1-0. Houston added another run in the fifth when Luis Pujols tripled and Rafael Landestoy singled him in.

Houston was ready to add a third run in the sixth. The bases were loaded with one out. Woods was on third and when Pujols flied to right, Woods tagged and scored. Only he left third base too soon, and the Philadelphia appeal was upheld. It was a double play, and quite unnecessary—there was no reason to think Woods wouldn’t have scored had he waited.

The game stayed 2-0 into the eighth, when the Phillies made the mistake hurt. Gross and Lonnie Smith singled to start the inning, and Rose cut the lead in half with an RBI single. The throw foolishly went home, and allowed Smith to go to third and Rose to take second. Schmidt singled to tie the game. Sambito came in with no one out and again struck out McBride in a big situation. Trillo hit a sac fly to give the Phils the lead, but again a runner—this time Schmidt—was thrown out elsewhere on the bases to end the inning. To call this game “weird” understates the case.

But to call it “exciting” understates the case too. Landestoy drew a ninth-inning walk, was bunted over and Puhl singled in the tying run. We were going extras again.

Rose singled with one out in the top of the 10th. With two outs, Luzinski and Trillo each doubled and the score was 5-3. McGraw closed the deal and we were going to a Game 5 in prime-time on Sunday night.

Now it was the Phillies’ turn to have a staff running on empty and they were left with unproven Marty Bystrom to go up against Ryan in the decisive game. Houston got on Bystrom early. Puhl singled to start the home half of the first, stole second and scored on a two-out hit from Cruz. The lead didn’t last though—Trillo singled with one out in the second, and after a walk, and a productive out moving both runners up, Philly got their own two-out hit, from Bob Boone and it was 2-1.

Houston was poised to tie it right back up in the second, as Pujols drew a one-out walk. He looked to score on a double by Craig Reynolds, but a McBride-to-Trillo relay gunned Pujols at the plate. More of the same happened in the fifth—Cabell, on second base, tried to score on an error by Trillo, but Rose threw out Cabell at the plate. The 2-1 score held into the sixth.

The Astros finally tied the game when Luzinski committed a two-base error, and Alan Ashby picked up the run with a base hit. One inning later, Houston opened up offensively.

Puhl hit a leadoff single, and Cabell bunted the runner up. With two outs, Jose Cruz drew a walk. Walling delivered a single that put the Astros in front. Cruz moved to third and scored on a wild pitch. Then Howe ripped a triple and it was 5-2, and for the second straight game, Philadelphia was down to their last six outs and trailing my multiple runs.

Bowa, Boone and Gross hit successive singles off Ryan to load the bases and Rose worked a walk to make it a 5-3 game, the bases still loaded and no one out. Sambito was summoned. A groundball force play made it 5-4. Forsch was summoned to face Schmidt.

Forsch’s strikeout of the MVP third baseman looked like it might be a pennant-saving K. But Del Unser delivered the two-out RBI single to the game and Trillo then slashed a triple. In a matter of two batters, the Phillies had gone from elimination to a 7-5 lead.

Houston didn’t just roll over and die. They got consecutive singles with one out in the eighth, Puhl again at the heart of the action. The rightfielder hit .526 for the series, routinely hitting smooth line drives to both fields. With two outs, Landestoy and Cruz each singled and the game was again tied, this time at 7-7.

For the fourth and final time, the 1980 NLCS was going extra innings. Unser hit a one-out double, and with two outs, Maddox also doubled. The Phils had the lead. Ruthven had pitched a clean ninth, and now he did the same in the tenth. This incredible series was finally over and Philadelphia was going to the World Series.

Trillo was named NLCS MVP, going 8-for-21. He was the best choice of players on the winning team. I think this was a case where a choice from the losing team would have been appropriate. Puhl completely dominated this series from the leadoff spot, going 10-for-19, drawing three walks and constantly getting rallies started.

Philadelphia kept the momentum going all the way to their first World Series title since 1915, beating the Kansas City Royals in six games.

The Phils have since won another World Series, in 2008. The Astros finally reached the Fall Classic in 2005, though they have yet to win it all in a franchise history that dates to 1962. Both teams had reasons to be proud in 1980, staging the greatest League Championship Series ever played, and quite possibly the best postseason series at any round.

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