Until March 27, we’ll be counting down the 50 greatest Phillies games of the last 50 years. This is 50 of 50.
And this is No. 3.
THE DATE: Oct. 12, 1980
THE GAME: Phillies vs. Houston Astros, Houston Astrodome, Houston, Texas
THE STAKES: Game 5, National League Championship Series
THE GREAT: Allow me to be up front: the top-two games in this countdown are the world championship clinchers of 1980 and 2008.
You probably figured that one, even if part of you thought maybe we’d slide in the other two 1993 World Series losses at the top of this list.
But no. Those are the two greatest, if we’re talking about great games that had the biggest historical significance and highest possible outcome.
With that out of the way, now allow me to be more up front: this game, this one right here, is the greatest bell-to-bell, pound-for-pound game in Phillies history. While its stakes aren’t quite the stakes of our top two games (but pretty close), Game 5 of the 1980 National League Championship Series was an unbelievable heavyweight prize fight, the closest baseball has come to a figurative bloodbath (with maybe the most recent Game 7 of the 2016 World Series [arguably the greatest game in the sport’s history] now surpassing it, but geez I’m not even sure).
For four rounds the Phillies and Astros traded blows. Only one game failed to reach extra innings (still a great game), while multiple games saw teams lose and gain leads, frequently in the latest moments.
In Game 4, the day before in Houston, the Astros kept a 2-0 lead into the eighth before the Phils stormed back to take a 3-2 lead. Then the Astros tied it in the ninth. Then the Phils won it in the 10th. The game lasted nearly four hours – a lifetime for a 1980 baseball game – and pushed a Houston vs. Texas A&M college football game scheduled that night for the Astrodome into the wee hours of the morning.
The top ABC broadcasting crew of Keith Jackson, Don Drysdale and Howard Cosell frequently carried on about the incredulous nature of the series as the games played out.
“You know it’s amazing that you play 162 on the regular schedule and four in the playoffs and it all boils down to the 167th game of the year,” said Drysdale.
Cosell in particular didn’t go two innings without expressing shock or wonder at the ballet happening on the field.
To put it bluntly, this series was unlike anything before or since.
On Oct. 12, 1980, the Phillies faced the Astros one last time. Someone had to win and move to the World Series, where the Kansas City Royals – dispatching the Yankees in three games in the ALCS – waited.
For the Phillies and their fans, this game was as close as they’ve come to a championship in 30 years. In 1976, ‘77 and ‘78 the Phils were denied the league pennant, never winning two games in any of those series. But now, at least, they had forced a winner-take-all Game 5 – the first winner-take-all game in Phillies history.
The Phils sent Marty Bystrom to the hill, a 22-year-old kid who started the year in triple-A Oklahoma City. The Astros countered with his polar opposite, a 33-year-old, 14-year veteran with already more than 3,000 career strikeouts. Or, succinctly, Nolan Ryan.
Thus, staying on brand, Ryan started the game by striking out Pete Rose. And Bystrom started the game by allowing Terry Puhl and Jose Cruz to smack a run out of him. Puhl and Cruz, specifically, had incredible series, with the former hitting .526 in the five games, and the latter putting up a .609 on-base mark during that time, including eight walks. So in a way, the fact that Puhl and Cruz only managed one run against Bystrom was somewhat of a minor victory for the rookie.
A major victory: coming right back against Ryan. Manny Trillo (himself a .381 hitter in the series) singled, Garry Maddox (in Dallas Green’s doghouse at the time) walked, and Bob Boone (finally coming alive after a tough ‘80 season) pushed them both home two batters later by hammering off a high fastball. With a 2-1 lead, the Phillies tried desperately to hold on for as long as possible.
They sure did everything they could.
In the second, Bystrom walked Luis Pujols, then served up a double down the right-field line to Craig Reynolds. Bake McBride was quick to the ball and threw it to Manny Trillo, who unloaded a perfect strike to Boone, who had the perfect block on the plate, to stop Pujols from scoring.
In the third, Puhl – of course – singled. With two outs, Cruz – of course – walked. Then Denny Walling struck a deep line drive off Bystrom, and while it screamed toward the fence, McBride had it stride for stride and nabbed the ball for the final out.
In the fourth, Art Howe led off with a single. And though the Astros had a runner on second with two outs, the ultimate hitter was Ryan, who struck out looking on three pitches.
In the fifth, Enos Cabell singled and moved to second on a Joe Morgan groundout. And up stepped the unbeatable Cruz.
But Cruz grounded one to second, taking Trillo awkwardly to his left but – nonetheless – a play the superb defensive infielder could easily handle. Trillo stopped, threw it submarine style to Rose … and pulled him off the bag.
And then Rose, as he done so many times as a Phillie, showed his outstanding awareness and baseball intelligence. While catching the ball off the bag and paying fleeting attention to the running Cruz, Rose noticed Cabell charging for home. In what can now be described as the precursor to Chase Utley’s heady World Series pump fake-and-throw home, Rose quickly recovered and beamed the ball to Boone, who was waiting in the crouch for the sliding Cabell. The tag. The out. Disaster averted.
The Astros finally broke through in the sixth, exposing the fatal flaw in the Phillies defense.
Leading off the inning, Walling struck a relatively easy fly ball to left field. The fatal flaw, Greg Luzinski, ran to grab it, but didn’t have the right timing on it. The ball flicked the top of his glove and bounced far behind him, resulting in a leadoff baserunner in scoring position. With one out, Alan Ashby pinch hit for the injured Pujols and slapped a single to center, and though Maddox put some juice on the perfect throw, it was a hair too late.
Said Cossell: “And we’re back, all even, as the pattern of this incredible league championship series continues!”
That ended the day for Bystrom. Warren Brusstar cleaned up the sixth, and Larry Christenson – who worked a deep six innings just two days before – entered for the seventh.
Christenson’s first test: Puhl.
Two batters later: Cruz.
Then, with two outs, Walling finally got it done with a single that scored Puhl. That’s when it unraveled, as Christenson’s next pitch bounced up and away from Boone, bringing Cruz home to score.
In came Ron Reed. And hitter Howe immediately welcomed him with a smash to deep right center. Another run across. A triple for Howe. And a 5-2 lead that had the Houston crowd in hysterics, just six outs from their first league pennant. Nolan Ryan was still on the mound for the Astros. It seemed completely insurmountable.
“Well if you planned on coming to Houston, don’t do it right away,” said Jackson, “cause they’re gonna have a party down here unless something dramatic happens on the count of the Phillies.”
In the eighth, Larry Bowa started it with a single off Ryan. Then Boone smacked one that nicked Ryan in the glove. It would’ve been a mammoth double play, but instead the Phillies had two on and nobody out.
Then Greg Gross – pinch hitting after a genius double-switch by Green – laid down an immaculate bunt to load the bases in just three minutes.
Jackson: “And here’s Mr. Trouble, Pete Rose.”
Rose vs. Ryan, a heavyweight battle if there ever was.
“They’ve got the right guy up,” remarked Cosell.
He fouled one off. Took a high pitch. Took a second high pitch. Fouled another one in a frenzy. Held off on a low breaking ball. Fouled one off his shoe. Then watched a fastball sail wide of the plate. Rose threw the bat, barked at his teammates and ran to first with a run scoring. 5-3.
The Astros took Ryan out of the game for Joe Sambito, who owned McBride. So Green wisely subbed out McBride for rookie catcher Keith Moreland. And the rookie tapped a grounder to second, and not hard enough for a double play, so another run scored. 5-4.
That brought in reliever Ken Forsch, who subdued Mike Schmidt with an easy strikeout. But he couldn’t stop pinch hitter extraordinaire Del Unser, who singled home Gross to tie the game at five.
And then came Trillo.
Jackson: “Curveball down the left field line, base hit going to the corner!”
The Trillo triple gave the Phils a 7-5 lead. A five-run comeback in the eighth. Pandemonium.
Cosell: “One of the greatest comebacks you will ever see in baseball.”
With the lead Green signaled for Tylenol Tug, who instantly surrendered a double to Craig Reynolds. He got an out, then of course, Puhl singled. Then a second out.
But up stepped Rafael Landestoy, who smacked a run-scoring single.
Then up stepped Cruz.
Jackson: “Up the middle, it’s gonna drop for a base hit. Here comes the tying run around third … and we’re tied at seven!”
Cosell: “I don’t believe it!”
McGraw got out of the eighth. In the ninth, Bowa singled and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. He moved to third on a groundout. But pinch hitter George Vukovich came up lame with a groundout.
In the bottom half, Green chose Dick Ruthven, who was the only Phillies pitcher to truly shut down the Astros. A 1-2-3 ninth led to the 10th, where finally, the Phils exercised their demons.
With one out, Unser doubled. And with two outs, Maddox didn’t wait for his pitch. He went right after Frank LaCorte, smacking the ball to center field, just under Puhl’s glove, to score Unser and give the Phils an 8-7 lead.
Cosell: “The ‘75 World Series was the best, but I don’t think it had what this series has.”
The bottom of the 10th was relatively anti-climactic. Ruthven got Danny Heep and Puhl out, and though he took Cabell to a 3-2 count, induced the fly ball that ended the game, the series, the bloodbath and the suffering.
One more time, Howard Cosell: “They are not the same old Phillies. They are the 1980 Phillies. They did it as hard a way as it has ever been done. They did it with a controversial manager, openly disliked by many of his players but they did it. And they did it because somewhere within them there was a spirit that would not be quelled.”
An unbelievable finish to an unbelievable series. An unbelievable baseball game.
Just a few days ago we lost Dallas Green. His mark will forever be left in baseball because, as this game showed, he proved to often display managerial genius. He made some outstanding moves in this game, including double-switching pitcher Ron Reed into the cleanup spot in the order, so that Greg Gross could hit ninth.
Sure he didn’t see a rally coming, but Gross came up in a crucial spot, with two on and nobody out. His bunt was the key play in the Phils’ eighth-inning rally.
Later that inning, he brought in Del Unser at the right moment. Unser would smack two huge hits in helping the Phils win the game.
Heck, Green had the audacity to replace Greg Luzinski and Bake McBride in a winner-take-all game. In many ways, McBride was the Phils’ best player at the moment, and still Green decided to sit him down in favor of a rookie catcher, all because Joe freakin’ Sambito had good numbers against the veteran outfielder.
That was Dallas Green. He couldn’t care two cents what other people thought, and conventional wisdom be damned, he did what felt right. In many ways, though, his take-charge style and off-the-cuff decisions prepared the Phils for the NLCS dogfight. Against the Astros the Phils never backed down, and every single member of the team contributed. That’s Dallas Green’s legacy. He made the most out of an entire 25-man roster in an entire 162-game season. And, boy, did it pay off in the end.