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. 10.
THE DATE: Oct. 11, 1980
THE GAME: Phillies vs. Houston Astros, Houston Astrodome, Houston, Texas
THE STAKES: Game 4, National League Championship Series
THE GREAT: This series.
This God-awful, stomach-churning, blood-boiling series of baseball games. I wasn’t alive. I wish I was. But I’m sort of glad I wasn’t.
The 1980 Phillies lived on the fault line, teetering between glory and flat-lining. Sure they fended off the Montreal Expos, as Mike Schmidt’s boomstick proved just too strong for the upstart Canadians. But the Houston Astros? They had pitching for days, anchored by Nolan Ryan and Vern Ruhle, and a pretty darn good offense, with Cesar Cedeno and Jose Cruz leading the way. They were balanced, tested and lacking the kind of on-field drama that defined the ’80 Phils.
And then they met the ’80 Phils. Cue one of baseball’s greatest two-act plays: Game 4 of the 1980 NLCS at the Houston Astrodome.
The ‘stros had the 2-1 lead in the series, and they never before reached the World Series – hell, they never even made it this far. So that was the setup: clearly another year where the Phils had to play doormat to the upstart National League champions. Another year without a pennant. Maybe it was never meant to be. The Phils were the team of Black Friday, the team of the 1964 choke, of coming up short and being the butt of every joke in the National League. No, it wasn’t meant to be. There’s no way they win this game.
It certainly felt that way as the game hit the fourth inning. Bake McBride and Manny Trillo singled to start the frame. Then Garry Maddox hit a ball to Ruhle. It looked like it bounced to him (right?), but it’s still hard to tell. The umpires called it a line drive. A couple tosses across the diamond, and it was a triple play that ended the inning just as quickly as it began.
Or was it? Dallas Green stepped out to argue. The umpires convened. Then they discussed the play with National League President Chub Feeney. Minutes ticked away. The Astrodome crowd became unruly, smoke fuming from their noses. Ultimately, after 15 minutes of unprecedented discussion, the umpires ruled that they couldn’t clearly see whether Ruhle caught the ball, that Maddox blocked the definitive view. Thus, somehow, a double play. The Astros were livid. Hell, so were the Phils, who thought it was becoming a damn circus out there. But the Phils had new life, and just as quickly as they got that life, Larry Bowa grounded out to end the inning.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Astros broke through against Steve Carlton. Art Howe flew one to Lonnie Smith. He caught it, then wound up to throw the ball home … but he came up lame.
Literally, Smith tossed a duck that bounced in front of him.
And yet, as the first run scored, Smith somehow recovered the ball and tossed it to third base, getting Gary Woods out as he slid in. A weird turn of events.
In the fifth, Luis Pujols smashed a ball deep to centerfield. Somehow, some way, the ball didn’t get over the fence and instead hit off the top of the wall for a triple. It really didn’t matter, as Rafael Landestoy singled Pujols home. 2-0 Astros. Halfway through Game 4. For a team that lost Game 3 by a 1-0 score, this seemed almost impossible.
To make matters worse, Carlton left in the sixth after walking the bases loaded with one out. Dickie Noles entered and immediately surrendered a Luis Pujols fly ball to right. And Woods scored on the sacrifice. A third run, right? Another reason why the Phils should’ve never won this game, right?
Oh, but the drama.
Mike Schmidt – and the rest of the Phils – noticed that Woods left the bag too quickly (how was Gary Woods not run out of Houston after this game?). So Schmidt handed the ball to Noles and told him to start play. Noles stepped on the rubber, then fed the ball back to Schmidt to register an appeal. Schmidt stepped on the bag. The umpire called Woods out. It worked. The inning ending on a ridiculous double play that somehow kept the game 2-0.
In the bottom of the seventh, still down 2-0, the Phils faced another hurdle. Noles and Kevin Saucier loaded the bases on walks, but Ron Reed shut the door on a groundout.
The play turns
Imagine watching this thing live, a Phillies fan on the brink of total elimination as both teams found new ways to obfuscate the baseball-watching world. Torture is too positive a word.
But take a step back for a moment – the Phils ran into stupidity early in the game, and though they were down a seemingly insurmountable 2-0, things began to turn in their favor. By the time the Phils extinguished the seventh inning Astros’ rally, maybe – just maybe – they were supposed to win it after all. Maybe you just have to let the drama happen.
And that’s when you realize this game was a two-act play just revealing itself in real time. Act one closed with Woods being called out on the appeal, the Phils down but certainly not out, and weirdly, holding the game momentum. And though they couldn’t break through in the seventh, they somehow held momentum by a thread.
But what the Phils needed – and what any great play needs – was a star who could push through the muck and conquer the climax. In the top of the eighth, supporting players Greg Gross and Smith led off with singles.
Then stepped the guy who – by sheer will if not his ability to slap a ball through a hole – would seize the game from the depths of despair.
Pete Rose smashed a single into right, scoring Gross. Hustling all the way, and taking advantage of a bad decision to throw the ball to the plate, he got to second with nobody out and a 2-1 score. That brought up Schmidt, who first fouled one that struck Pujols, injuring the catcher out of the game and introducing backup backstop Bruce Bochy. Delicious foreshadowing.
And Bochy watched as Schmidt hit a tough hopper that scored Smith to tie the game.
McBride struck out after Schmidt. Then, with one out, Trillo flew one to right field. And Rose was ready to run, blasting home to give the Phils a lead, 3-2.
Then, seconds after Rose scored, the Astros doubled off Schmidt.
The amazing game was soon tied, with Terry Puhl singling home Landestoy in the bottom of the ninth. The Phils then converted yet another fly-ball double play. (What were there, like, five of them in this game?)
Thus everything was reset. With the stage clear, it was time for the star to return, to bring a final flourish that would define this unholy drama and leave scars that would last for decades.
To the stage came Pete Rose.
Top of the 10th. Rose singled. Greg Luzinski, pinch hitting for McBride, followed with a liner into left field. Scurrying all the way, Rose was focused on home plate, and stiffened up as he reached Bochy, the new guy who had to step in late because of Pujols’ injury. Rose wore a mad face as he charged right at Bochy, then shouldered the poor guy right to the ground, even though the baseball fell lame and bounced away from the play.
With Bochy in a heap on the dirt, Rose defiantly touched the plate and celebrated the go-ahead run like he conquered Troy.
4-3. At that point, arguably, the biggest run in Phillies history.
Trillo doubled to provide an insurance run – since you have to fall from the climax – and Tug McGraw would close it up (an epilogue). 5-3 the final.
At the time, arguably, the craziest, most unbelievable game in Phillies history. They shouldn’t have won. But they did. And somehow, one night later, they came back and won again. More on that later.
But that was the 1980 Phillies. Kings of the two-act play.
And I have no idea how the millions of Phillies fans across the Delaware Valley held through this one.