Astros Fight Valiantly but Finally Succumb in their First Playoff Series Ever
It wasn’t to be.
Eighteen years after their inception, eleven years after their expansion twin the Mets took the Championship Crown, it looked like the Astros finally had their own miracle in the works.
Could the Astros, after years of mediocrity, really make it to the World Series?
Alas, it wasn’t to be.
Perhaps it was miracle enough that they got to this point. Going into the last series of the year in LA three games ahead of the Dodgers in the NL West, they needed to win only one of three games to clinch the Division and a playoff shot at the powerful Phillies.
But in the playoff game for the Divisional Championship they took the crown 7-1 behind the miracle knuckleball of Joe Niekro. Unfortunately, instead of having their hottest pitcher ready for games one and five of the NLCS, he was relegated to Game 3. A game three he won 1-0 in ten, baffling, flutterball innings.
This Game 3 win put the Astros in position to clinch in Game 4, but it would be the Phillies who would pull out an extra inning miracle to force Game 5.
Would history remember 1980 as the year of the miracle Astros? Game 5 would tell.
It started well. The Astros took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first on a double by Jose Cruz, scoring the team’s most dangerous hitter this year, Terry Puhl, who led off with a single and later stole second.
Now it was up to the newest Astro, the $1,000,000 man, Nolan Ryan, to hold the lead. This was not a position the Phillies wanted to be in. Having to face perhaps one of the most fearsome strikeout pitchers ever, tied with Sandy Koufax with the most no-hitters in history, and having to do it in the Astrodome.
Ryan held the Phils in the first, but in the second, after surrendering a single and a walk, Bob Boone put the Phils up 2-1 with a two-run single. The Phillies, and their rookie phenom, starter Marty Bystrom, would hold this lead until the sixth inning.
The Astros would tie it when Denny Walling got to second on an error by the left fielder. He would score on an Alan Ashby single.
It was now the seventh inning of a decisive Game 5 in the first playoff series in Astros history. The score was 2-2. The tension in the Astrodome was tighter than a piano string.
The Phils would go down quickly, but in the bottom of the inning the Miracle Astros appeared to break the game open, scoring three. Terry Puhl, once again, led off the inning with a single. After Puhl was bunted to second, and Jose Cruz was intentionally walked, Denny Walling made Phils manager Dallas Green pay with an RBI single. Jose Cruz would score on a wild pitch, and then Art Howe would triple home Walling for the inning’s third run.
Going into the eighth inning, again Nolan Ryan was handed a lead, this time 5-2. Pitching on short rest, did he have enough gas to hold it?
No, and his relief didn’t help much either.
Ryan promptly allowed three singles, one an infield variety, another a bunt. With no outs, Ryan then surrendered a base on balls to Pete Rose, scoring a run. This would be the end of Ryan’s night, as manager Bill Virdon sent in his ace reliever, Joe Sambito.
Sambito would induce a run scoring ground out, after which Virdon sent starter Ken Forsch into the game to hold the one run lead.
Forsch promptly surrendered three runs on a single and then a crushing two-run triple to NLCS MVP Manny Trillo, giving the Phillies a 7-5 lead.
The commanding Astros lead had been transformed into a steep deficit. Could the Astros turn the tables again?
In the bottom of the eight, shortstop Craig Reynolds hit a lead-off single against Phillie reliever Tug McGraw. With one out, Terry Puhl (yes, him again) singled Reynolds to third. Rafael Landestoy then singled Reynolds home, and Jose Cruz tied the score 7-7 with an RBI single, scoring Puhl.
With runners on first and third, Denny Walling had a chance to put the Stros ahead. His ground out left the score tied going into the ninth.
Both teams’ bullpens managed to hold the other team in the ninth, although the Phillies managed a lead-off single and stranded a runner on second.
In the tenth, against Frank LaCorte, the Phillies scored on doubles by Del Unser and what turned out to be the game-winning RBI by Garry Maddox. The Astros had no answer, going three up, three down in the bottom of the inning, although Terry Puhl would hit a scorching lineout to deep center.
No miracle for the Astros this year. But the Astros have made a major advance, winning their first Divisional title, and coming just one base hit short of advancing to their first World Series.
And what could have been. What if J.R. Richard, having one of the most dominant seasons in the history of major league pitchers, hadn’t suffered a mysterious mid-season injury?
What if the best outfielder in the history of the Astros, Cesar Cedeno, had just shown up? (playoff OPS .432, 2 hits)
How about Luis Pujols getting thrown out by an inch at home in the second inning of Game 5? Or Enos Cabell in the fifth?
Despite the loss, the Astros will always be remembered as one of the antagonists in the most exciting and intense playoff series in history. In a five game series, four were decided in extra innings, featuring such no-doubt future Hall of Famers as Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Nolan Ryan
It seems inevitable that the survivor of this ordeal will prevail against their AL opponent in the World Series, George Brett and the Kansas City Royals.
It could have been the Stros. So close.
Just wait till next year. The future is bright.
Here’s a condensed version of the game.