After a fourth place finish and a managerial change in 1979, the Phillies, now led by Dallas Green, were ready to show the world that they were no longer worthy of being called underachievers. However, even with the league MVP in Mike Schmidt (.286/48/121) and the Cy Young award winning Steve Carlton (24-9, 2.34), the Phils still needed to go on a 21-6 tear in their last 27 games to end the season as NL East champs. In fact, had they not taken two of three games from the Expos in the final days of the regular season, they wouldn't have even made the playoffs (remember, this was before the wild card was in place).
The Houston Astros' made their postseason appearance thanks to the help of All-Stars Jose Cruz (.302/11/91/36) and J.R. Richard (10-4, 1.90), as well as Joe Niekro (20-12, 3.55), their staff ace. As a team, the Astros finished just eighth in offense, but led the NL in pitching. Reaching October dreams was no easier a task for Houston though. 162 games wasn't enough to settle the dogfight they had with "Dem Bums" in LA, so, with both teams sitting on a 92-70 record, they were forced to a one game playoff to see who would face the Phils at the Vet. A Houston win finalized the NLCS match-up, and set the stage for something that many baseball fans would never forget on the very next day.
On Tuesday, October 7th, a Pennsylvania baseball record 65,277 Phillies fans packed into Veterans stadium with the hopes that this would finally be the year. The pitching match-up to kick this show off was the aforementioned Steve Carlton and Ken Forsch (12-13, 3.20) for the Astros. The game started off as expected, with two scoreless innings from two of the better pitchers in the league. Houston scored the first run of the game in the top of the third, when Art Howe hit the third single of the inning to knock in Jose Cruz.
Now working with a lead, Forsch locked in after a rocky start. The heart of the Phillies' order was able to change all that in the sixth inning however. A single from Pete Rose starting things off, and with two outs, Greg "The Bull" Luzinski finished it by smashing a long ball to left center. Not only did the homer plate two runs, but it also set off the raucous sell out crowd as they saw their team suddenly jump ahead of the opposition. Going yard in the postseason was not unusual for The Bull, who had established himself as one of the Phillies' better playoff performers with his .317 average, four homers and seven RBI up to that point.
That one run lead would be all Carlton and the Phils needed, even though postseason virgin Greg Gross was able to tack on one more with a pinch-hit single that scored Garry Maddox in the bottom of the seventh. With Carlton now out of the game, Green made the call to the pen for soon to be legend, Tug McGraw. After a perfect eighth inning, McGraw found himself just three outs away from sealing the deal on game one in front of the home fans. Maybe nerves got to the Tugger, but he ended up walking Luis Pujols to lead off the ninth and put the tying run at home plate. McGraw kept his cool and refrained from pulling a Joe Table by recording three straight outs to end the game in just a little over two and a half hours. A relieved and exuberant crowd in the yellow and red Veterans Stadium seats, as well as across the Philadelphia area celebrated their win and prepared for game two the very next night.
Phillies Phever must have spread within that 24-hour period because the second game drew an even larger crowd than the day before with an attendance of 65,476, and the new Pennsylvania record. Wednesday's starters were Dick Ruthven (17-10, 3.79) for Philly and some guy named Nolan Ryan (11-10, 3.35) for Houston. The first three innings were almost like a rerun of the day before, thanks to two scoreless innings, followed by a Terry Puhl RBI single in the top of the third to give the Astros a lead. This time, the Phils made their comeback a bit earlier. In the fourth, Schmidt and Luzinski pounded back-to-back doubles to tie it up, and Garry Maddox slapped a single to take the lead away from Ryan, who ended up throwing less than seven innings before getting the hook.
Terry Puhl tied the game up at two with another RBI hit, this time a double. The previous night's finisher, Tug McGraw, made his second appearance of the series in the eighth inning again. This time the results weren't as good though. A Jose Cruz single scored Joe Morgan and put the lead back in the Astros' hands. This seesaw battle continued when Maddox chalked up his second RBI single of the night in the bottom of the inning.
Ron Reed came in to pitch the ninth for the Fightin's and started a scoreless ninth that Frank LaCorte would finish for Houston. With the tenth frame came trouble for Reed. Cruz brought in Puhl for the go ahead run, and after an error from McBride and a run scoring hit by Cedeno, Dallas Green had seen enough from Reed. Kevin Saucier entered the game and promptly gave up a triple to Bergman that scored two more and gave the Astros a 7-3 lead, which was more than enough to get a W. In the bottom of the tenth, Philly put up one more run to make it a 7-4 as the series moved to Texas. LaCorte was given the win and Andujar a save for finishing off the home club.
Splitting the first two games in Philadelphia was all that Houston could want before getting the Phils on the Astrodome turf for the final three games. Even after the loss though, the Phillies were still very confident. It seemed as if those clutch wins at Montreal to end the regular season made the Fightin's feel like they could take on, and overcome anything, so going to Houston without a lead wasn't a worry.
Tomorrow, the series heats up as we get into games three and four under the dome. Can the Phillies take two on hostile territory? Well, I guess we already know the answer to that, but read anyway!