The Milwaukee Brewers defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers by a 7-2 score on Friday night. The victory by the Brew Crew forces an ultimate Game 7 in the National League Championship Series tonight at Miller Park in Milwaukee.
There have now been 136 seasons of baseball in the history of the Philadelphia Phillies franchise, 14 of which have resulted in a postseason appearance. None has ever resulted in the Phillies participating in a Game 7.
However, the Phillies and their fans have experienced the nervous energy and thrill of some winner-take-all drama on three occasions.
The first was Game 5 of the National League Championship Series back in 198o. The following year during the first-ever National League Division Series held because of the split-season due to a player strike, it happened again. Three decades would then pass before the next in Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series.
The Phillies have enjoyed the thrill of victory just once, in that 1980 NLCS. They went down in heart-breaking fashion in both 1981 and 2011. The two losses came as a result of similar circumstances.
1980 NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
The 1980 series between the Phillies and Houston Astros was perhaps the greatest NLCS in history. All five were close, dramatic games, with the last four all ending in extra-innings.
The Phillies won the opener at Veteran’s Stadium by a 3-1 score behind a Steve Carlton gem and a Greg Luzinski home run. Houston then scored four runs in the top of the 10th to even the series at Veteran’s Stadium in Game Two.
Back home at the Astrodome for Game Three, the Astros got a leadoff triple in the bottom of the 11th from Joe Morgan off Tug McGraw in a 0-0 game. Following two intentional walks, Denny Walling scored Morgan with the walkoff, putting Houston within a game of their first-ever World Series appearance.
The Phillies fought back, rallying from a 2-0 deficit in Game Four to score three times in the top of the 8th inning. After Houston tied it up in the last of the 9th, the Phillies scored twice in the top of the 10th to win it. That rally was highlighted by Pete Rose plowing into Bruce Bochy with the go-ahead run.
With the NLCS tied at two games apiece, the decisive Game Five would take place once again in Houston. This time the Astros had a literal ace-in-the-hole in Nolan Ryan, and the big right-hander rolled into the top of the 8th inning with a 5-2 lead.
The Phillies then scratched and clawed their way back, scoring five times in that 8th inning to take a 7-5 lead. Houston refused to die, scoring twice in the bottom of the frame to tie it up, and again the two teams headed to extras.
In the top of the 10th inning, Del Unser, whose pinch-hit RBI single had tied it up in that big Phillies 8th inning rally, once again played the hero by doubling to right field. Then with two outs, Garry Maddox dropped a ball into center field, driving in Unser with the go-ahead run.
Manager Dallas Green had his #2 starter on the mound as a reliever, and right-hander Dick Ruthven took the mound for the bottom of the 10th inning. Ruthven retired the Astros in order, getting Enos Cabell to fly out to Maddox for the final out. The Phillies had won their first National League pennant in three decades en route to their first-ever World Series victory.
1981 NATIONAL LEAGUE DIVISION SERIES
The following year of 1981 was marred by a strike from the players, one that resulted in Major League Baseball deciding to split the season into two halves. The Phillies were in first place at the time of the strike, and thus were awarded the first-half title.
In the second half, the Montreal Expos finished on top. This meant that the Phillies and Expos would face-off in the first-ever National League Division Series.
The whole split-season thing was all a bit frustrating for the Saint Louis Cardinals, who finished with a better overall record than both the Phillies and Expos in the NL East, and who finished just a half-game behind Montreal in the second half.
In fact, over in the NL West Division the Cincinnati Reds finished with the overall best record in baseball but were also shut out of the postseason. The Reds ended the first half at a half-game behind the Dodgers and finished the second half at 1.5 back of the Astros.
In the best-of-five NLDS, the Expos bolted out to a 2-0 lead by shutting the defending champion Phillies down in identical 3-1 victories at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. The series then returned to Veteran’s Stadium for the final three games. The Phillies bats finally awoke for a 6-2 win in Game Three.
With the Phillies now trailing 2-1 in the series and their backs still to the wall, Game Four moved into the bottom of the 10th inning tied at 5-5. Green sent up 25-year-old George Vukovich to leadoff as a pinch-hitter for McGraw.
With just a single home run in 91 plate appearances spread over his first two seasons to that point, Vukovich seemed an unlikely hero. But that is exactly what he became when he ripped the first pitch from Expos closer Jeff Reardon over the right field wall and into the Phillies bullpen for a walkoff homer.
The momentum now seemed in the Phillies favor for the decisive Game Five. They had won two straight, were at home in front of their roaring fans, and would have Carlton on the mound. The only problem? Someone forgot to tell Expos starting pitcher Steve Rogers that he didn’t stand a chance.
Rogers had bested Carlton in the opener by battling through 8.1 innings in which he surrendered 10 hits but allowed just a single run. He was even better this time.
In a complete game masterpiece, Rogers shut out the Phillies on six hits. And in the top of the 5th inning his bases-loaded single off Carlton scored two runs to break up a 0-0 showdown. The Expos won 3-0 and advanced on to the NLCS, and the Phillies were dethroned.
2011 NATIONAL LEAGUE DIVISION SERIES
The last winner-take-all for the franchise in 2011 also ended in heartbreaking fashion with the opposition starting pitcher out-dueling a Phillies ace.
In 2011, the Phillies had set an all-time franchise record by winning 102 games during the regular season. That came largely thanks to a starting rotation featuring the ‘Four Aces’: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels.
The Cardinals had not even won their division. They finished in second place in the NL Central, six games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. But the Cards beat out the Atlanta Braves for the NL Wildcard berth on the final day of the season, earning an opportunity against the Phillies in the NLDS.
The Phillies took two of the first three games and very nearly got a sweep. Saint Louis stayed alive by rallying from an early 4-0 deficit against Lee to eke out a 5-4 win in Game Two. The Cards then won Game Four at Busch Stadium to force a decisive game back in Philadelphia.
For that dramatic Game Five at Citizens Bank Park, Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel sent his ace of aces Halladay to the mound. Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa countered with big right-hander Chris Carpenter, an off-season hunting and fishing buddy of Halladay’s.
The Phillies had battered Carpenter early in Game Two, driving him from the mound by scoring four times over the first three frames. But a parade of six Cardinals relievers then completely shut the Phillies bats down to keep Saint Louis in the series.
Halladay was strong, surrendering just a single run on six hits while walking one and striking out seven over eight innings. He yielded extra-base hits to the first two batters of the game to fall behind 1-0 but would scatter just four singles the rest of the way.
Carpenter, however, would not allow himself to be embarrassed again. The 36-year-old veteran delivered a true masterpiece, allowing the Phillies just three hits in a complete game shutout that was eerily reminiscent of Rogers’ elimination of the Phillies three decades earlier.
Carpenter was in trouble just once, getting Raul Ibanez to fly out with runners on the corners and two down in the bottom of the 4th inning. In the bottom of the 9th, he retired Ryan Howard on a weak grounder for the final out, ‘The Big Piece’ crumpling to the ground with what turned out to be a major Achilles injury while trying to run from the batter’s box.
Someday the Phillies and their fans may have to sit through the tense drama of a Game 7 during a National League Championship Series or a World Series. It would be a first for the franchise.
If it should come in one of those scenarios, or perhaps during an NL Wildcard Game or a decisive fifth game of a Division Series, the memories of those three previous winner-take-all Phillies October dramas are sure to be relived.
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