Sports Illustrated - October 20, 1980

Wow, What A Playoff


Philadelphia beat Houston in a five-game National League series that set records for drama and excitement.


By Ron Fimrite


It was said of the one team that it had no heart and of the other that it had no talent. If that is so, then there were imposters on the artificial greenswards in Philadelphia and Houston last week, playing with heart and ability in five of the most amazing baseball games ever strung together. The Phillies, the celebrated gutless choke artists of legend, won, finally, on heart, beating the Astros two games out of three on Houston's ersatz turf and rallying from behind in the final nail-biter after they were all but laid to rest. The Astros, the Joe Blows of baseball, established that they had the talent to stave off until the very end the superior firepower of Philadelphia.


But it was the Phillies, fighting the Astros, the odds and their own image, who came through to win their first National League pennant in 30 years. They did it after Houston had apparently won the final league playoff game Sunday with a three-run seventh inning. But the Phillies came back from the 5-2 deficit, finishing off Nolan Ryan and rocking his successors in a five-run eighth. Then it was the Astros' turn, tying the score in their half of the eighth on run-scoring singles by Rafael Landestoy and Jose Cruz. And so it went, into extra innings for the fourth consecutive game, a postseason record.


In the 10th, Del Unser ripped a double down the rightfield line, the ball skipping crazily over the head of Astro First Baseman Dave Bergman. Unser scored the eighth and winning run when Garry Maddox hit Frank LaCorte's first pitch to him on a line to center, just beyond the reach of a frantic Terry Puhl. The Phillies were in the World Series at last.


It was a proud moment for both teams. "Everybody in the country realizes now that we are a better club than people thought," said Houston Manager Bill Virdon. "This shows we do have emotions," said Phillie Shortstop Larry Bowa. "It's not that we tried to lose in the past. We just got beat. Our fans didn't understand. Maybe now they will."


It had been the most eventful and raggedly exciting series since divisional playoffs began in 1969. The third game went scoreless into the 11th inning, a National League Championship Series record, and the fourth, which took three hours and 55 minutes to finish, was the longest playoff game by the clock. The Phillies left the embarrassing total of 25 runners on base while losing Games 2 and 3, and Phillie pitchers walked 17 batters in Games 3 and 4. In Game 2 four batters—three Phillies and an Astro—struck out with the bases loaded. Seven intentional walks were issued by the two teams in Game 3. Also in Game 3, the Astros' Joe Niekro pitched 10 shutout innings and did not get the win. Two runners, one from each team, were doubled off first base on fly balls to the outfield in the series, and the Astros' Gary Woods was out when he left third base before a potential sacrifice fly was caught.


The most nearly normal game was the first, played in Veterans Stadium before a playoff-record crowd of 65,277, most of whom vented long years of postseason frustration on former favorites Bowa, Bob Boone and Greg Luzinski during the pregame introductions. Bowa and Boone both got hits in the game, and Luzinski merely won it. The Phils were trailing the Astros and Ken Forsch 1-0 in the sixth when Luzinski came to bat with two outs and Pete Rose on first. The Bull worked Forsch to a 3-2 count and then hit a low, inside fastball deep into the leftfield seats for the winning runs as his detractors cheered. The puckish Tug McGraw shut down the Astros the last two innings in relief of Steve Carlton.


The win was the Phillies' first in a postseason game at home since Grover Cleveland Alexander beat the Red Sox at Baker Bowl in the first game of the 1915 World Series. That was their only win in any World Series, and they had also lost all three of their previous Championship Series in 1976, 77 and '78.


In the second game, a new record crowd of 65,476 sat in anguish as the Phils stumbled to a 7-4, 10-inning loss to the opportunistic Astros. In the seventh, with the score tied 2-2 and one out, they' loaded the bases. Joe Sambito, the ace lefthanded Astro reliever, struck out Bake McBride swinging, and Dave Smith, the ace righthanded reliever, then struck out Mike Schmidt looking. But the ninth was even more exasperating. After McBride, Schmidt and rookie Lonnie Smith hit consecutive singles, LaCorte struck out Manny Trillo and got Maddox to pop up. Houston won the game in the 10th with four runs, two scoring on the light-hitting Bergman's triple.


The Phillies appeared to be living down to their reputation as postseason apple swallowers. Now they would have to play the final three games of the series in the Astrodome, where, cheered on by their college-football-type rooters, the Astros won a team-record 55 games this year. The Friday game would be number 56, though it would prove costly. In the sixth inning Cesar Cedeno raced to first in the vain hope of beating out a double-play grounder to short. He lunged for the bag, catching the side of it with his right foot and pitching forward on impact onto the island of dirt around the base. He was carted off on a stretcher and was operated on that evening for a compound dislocation and extreme ligament tear in the right ankle.


Niekro shut out the Phils for 10 innings and Smith, the winner, for one. In the 11th, Joe Morgan led off with a linedrive triple off the rightfield wall. He had been suffering from strained ligaments in his left knee for more than a week, so Landestoy came in to run for him, just as he had in the 10th inning on Wednesday night. Once again, Landestoy scored the game's deciding run, this time on Denny Walling's medium-deep sacrifice fly to the glass-armed Luzinski. "How far did that fly go?" Manager Dallas Green inquired. "Fifty-60 feet? Hell, Bull wouldn't have thrown him out from 45."


Of the fourth game, Virdon would say, "The things that occurred have happened at one time or another, but never all in the same game." Consider the fourth inning, top and bottom halves. With nobody out and Trillo and McBride on base, Maddox slapped a little twister back toward Astro Pitcher Vern Ruhle, who dived for the ball and caught it at the edge of the dirt patch around the mound. Well, maybe he caught it. The television replays were inconclusive. Plate Umpire Doug Harvey could not tell one way or the other because his vision was obscured by Maddox, but with the runners in flight, he felt obliged to call something, so he signaled "no catch." He had second thoughts when he saw Ruhle fire to first as if to double off Trillo. He called time to confer with his colleagues. When First Base Umpire Ed Vargo and Third Base Umpire Bob Engel concurred that Ruhle had caught the ball on the fly, Harvey signaled "double play." Astro First Baseman Art Howe then hurried over to tag second, which McBride had deserted, and for a time it appeared that the most unusual triple play in history had just occurred. But Harvey said no to that, placing McBride back on second because his erroneous "no catch" gesture had caused McBride to run off in the first place.


The ensuing rhubarb lasted 20 minutes. In the end, Harvey's double-play ruling held, although both managers filed protests—subsequently dismissed. Then, in the bottom half of the inning, the Phillies' Smith set another Championship Series record, for inept play by a leftfielder. He ran back on a deep Enos Cabell fly ball, then turned to face the outfield wall to field the carom. The ball dropped, comically, on the warning track only a few feet away from him. Cabell reached second. He was on third and Woods on first when Howe hit another fly ball to Smith. He caught this one and cranked up for what would surely be a mighty throw to the plate. But the ball slipped out of his hand and rolled only a few feet in front of him. Cabell scored.


There were other innings. In the sixth, Woods cost the Astros a run by leaving third too soon on Luis Pujols' one-out fly to right. In the eighth inning, the Astros' Jeff Leonard either caught Trillo's drive to right and doubled Schmidt off at first or, as the TV replays seemed to show, he trapped the ball. Either way, Rose, cautiously tagging up, scored. Rose later tallied the game-winner in the 10th, running from first on Luzinski's pinch double and bashing into the Astro catcher, Bruce Bochy, at the plate. Bochy was woozy, but he had to stay in because both Pujols and first-stringer Alan Ashby (separated rib) were sidelined. The Phils scored again in the inning for the final series-tying 5-3 win. And after all of that, there was still one more incredible game to play.