One Friday, October 10th, the third game of the series, and first in Houston, pitted Philadelphia's Larry Christenson (5-1, 4.03) against Joe Niekro (20-12, 3.55). This would be Niekro's first and only appearance in this NLCS, since he was called upon to start the one game playoff against LA just four days earlier. As would be expected in a game at the Astrodome, pitching was the word of the day.
The Phillies first real chance at breaking the game open came in the third inning with the help of big Greg Luzinski and his powerful bat. The Bull stepped up to the plate with two outs on the board and two runners on base. Whaap! With one mighty swing, Luzinski sent a moon shot up toward the roof. As the ball leapt off the bat, it appeared that three runs would be put on the board as Luzinski, who already had one homer in game one, achieved a somewhat rare feat by Astrodome standards. But it was not meant to be. Jose Cruz backed up onto the warning track and squeezed the final out of the inning for Niekro. If they had still been playing at the Vet, there's a good chance that ball would have been in the hands of a 300 level patron.
After that scare for the Astros, zeros continued to find their place on the scoreboard. Dallas Green made a call to the pen for Dickie Noles, replacing Christenson after six strong innings of work where he allowed just three hits and evaded a loss thanks to a couple of double play balls. The scoreless game continued into the eighth, with Niekro still going strong and holding Phillies hitters at bay. With the bottom of the eighth came the third appearance of the series for Tug McGraw, who continued the night's theme of no runs being scored. Tugger managed to fend off Astros hitters for three innings, as Niekro did the same for Houston. The end of the tenth inning also turned out to be the end of a masterful performance from Niekro, as he was relieved by Dave Smith.
Smith got himself into a bit of hot water in the eleventh, allowing two Phils to reach base before he could strike out Del Unser to end the inning. In the bottom of that eleventh inning, Tug McGraw took his place on the mound to pitch his fourth frame of the night and things went downhill right away. Joe Morgan started things off, and almost ended it, with a triple to deep right center. The hall of famer almost turned his hit into an inside the park home run as the ball got away from McBride, but Astros' third base coach decided not to risk it and held Morgan a bag away from winning.
Dallas Green then used the unusual, but logical in this case, strategy of intentionally walking the next two batters to load the bases for Denny Walling. Green's strategy wasn't given a chance to work, as Walling hit a sacrifice fly to left that would end the game and give Houston a 2-1 lead in the series. However, this win for Bill Verdon's boys was tainted by the loss of Cesar Cedeno for the rest of the season with a dislocated ankle.
All of the sudden, things weren't looking very good for the Phillies. Two straight losses had to chip away at the confidence of the team, especially since all it took was one more loss for them to retain the label of underachievers. After all that sinks in though, comes the realization that Steve Carlton, the ace of aces, was going to battle for them the next day. So, while it took just one more win for Houston to reach the World Series for the very first time in franchise history, it would require everything they had to beat the Cy Young winner on Saturday.
The fourth face off between the Phils and Astros, started by the aforementioned Carlton and Vern Ruhle for Houston, began much like first three. Scoreless. The Phillies were almost shut down in the fourth with a controversial 1-3 triple play, but after about a half hour of argument and conferring with Chub Feeney (then NL President), it was ruled just a double play. In the bottom of the fourth, two muffed plays by Lonnie Smith resulted in Enos Cabell scoring the first run of the game.
Down 2-0, Green removed Carlton in the sixth, hoping that the bullpen could hold off the Astros while the Phillies' hitters tried to scrape together some runs. Philly's World Series hopes almost came crashing down in the seventh as Houston drew three walks to load the bases, but Ron Reed was able to keep it together and get Walling to ground out to third and end the inning.
The Fightin' Phils were not about to roll over and give up though. In the eighth inning, they mounted a comeback rally with the help of an RBI single from Rose, who also scored the go ahead run. Going into the ninth, it looked as if the Phils would be able to win this one before it could go to extra innings, where they had yet to pull out a victory. That pesky Terry Puhl dashed that notion with an RBI single to right off of Warren Brusstar. Now in the tenth inning, the Phillies had their backs against the wall. All it took now was one run from the Astros, and they were going home for the winter. Pete Rose wasn't having any of that, so he went out and slapped a single. Two batters later, Luzinski came in as a pinch hitter and punished a double off the wall in left field. Rose motored around the bases, his hair flapping in the wind and helmet lying on the turf somewhere, and didn't plan on stopping until he got the Phils a lead. As the relay throw approached catcher Bruce Bochy, Rose smashed into him like a freight train into a gnat to score the go ahead run. A double by Manny Trillo gave them an extra score before Houston was able to get a third out.
Tug McGraw emerged from the bullpen to pitch the bottom of the tenth. He made quick work of the Astros hitters in his fourth straight appearance of the series, and tied this NLCS up at two games a piece in front of a stunned Houston crowd. With just one more game to play, it was now anyone's to take.
Will the Phils come out of game five with a win and a champagne bath for the whole team? You'll have to wait until tomorrow's final installment to find out. Or you can just look at the 1980 World Series banner beyond the outfield wall at the Vet.