1980: Astros take Playoff with Dodgers, 7-1
By Bill McCurdy
The date was October 6, 1980. By tailspinning into a three game sweep loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on the West Coast, the Houston Astros found themselves facing the same club to break a dead heat tie for first place in the National League West. The winner would advance to play the Philadelphia Phillies for the National League pennant. The loser would go home to a winter of discontent that overflowed with thoughts of what might have been. Whomever advanced and then lost to the Phillies might surely do the same from a steeper cliff, but today the business was about winning the opportunity to simply try.
By an earlier coin flip, LA had won the right to be the home team n the event that the Astros and Dodgers ended up in a tie and needing a playoff. Their win convenient since the Astros were already in town, still trying to recover from dropping a three-game series that left them in a 92-70 identical finish with the Dodgers, but that didn’t make the game any easier as a proposition for the staggering club from Houston. Down hearts came out of the woodwork with their predictions for our Astros’ full demise, but there was no giving up in us hard-core fans, or in manager Bill Virdon, or in the Astros themselves.
Astros manager picked Joe Niekro (19-12) to pitch the biggest game in franchise history. Niekro would be opposed by Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda’s selection, Dave Goltz (7-10). By league rules, stats from the special playoff game would be included in the regular season team and individual records of each club. Therefore, the stakes for Knucksie Niekro of Houston were even higher. Houston’s first division championship, a shot at the World Series, and a second straight 20-win season were all riding on what he did on the mound this special day.
Houston got on the board early. In the top of the 1st, Terry Puhl reached first base on a leadoff E-4 and then advanced to third on a single by Enos Cabell. With Joe Morgan batting, Cabell then stole second to amp the Astros threat into a “runners at second and third with nobody out” situation.
After Morgan fanned, Jose Cruz appeared to reach on a fielder’s choice, but the play at the plate was muffed by the Dodger catcher, allowing Puhl to score. With Cabell now on third and Cuz on first with one out, Houston led, 1-0.
Cabell then scored on a Cesar Cedeno ground out to make it Houston, 2-0, but that would be it for the first stanza. An Art Hoe single would move Cruz to third, but Dodger starter Dave Goltz would pitch his way out of further harm.
After Joe Niekro retired the Dodgers in order over the first two innings, the Astros added two more runs in the top of the third to increase their lead to 4-0. They got those tallies with the old “Here’s Howe” recipe. After Cesar Cedeno singled and stole second, Art Howe went deep to push the comfort zone a little softer for pitcher Niekro, but nobody was taking anything for granted – not after the standings earthquake the Astros went through in their final series of the season.
After Niekro again stopped the Dodgers in the third, the Astros added a final touch with three more runs in the top of the fourth. After Puhl reached on a bunt single and steal of second, Cabell and Morgan walked to load the bases. Puhl then scored on a sacrifice fly by Jose Cruz – and Cabell-Morgan both tallied on a 2-rbi single by Art Howe. Four rib-eyes? Here’s Howe! Going to the bottom of the 4th, it was Houston 7 – Los Angeles 0.
The Dodgers broke up the shutout in the bottom of the 4th when Dusty Baker singled, moved to second on an error, and then scored on another single, but that wold be it for the day.The Dodgers threatened again by loading the bases in the 6th, but Niekro shut the door on any further scoring. Joe gave up only one more hit over the last three innings, a two-out single in the 9th, but that would be it for the Dodgers.
Joe Niekro (20-12) had pitched the Houston Astros to a 7-1, 6-hit, 2 walks, 6 strikeouts, no earned runs complete game stop on the Los Angeles Dodgers, advancing the Houston Astros to their first regular playoff appearance in the NLCS. In the scheme of things, Joe Niekro had won the most important game in franchise history to-date and become the first pitcher in Astros history to mark twenty-win seasons for two years in a row.
What else does the guy need to do deserve having his number 36 retired by the Astros? Nothing. He already did it – a long, long time ago.
Roy Oswalt takes the mound tomorrow, Sunday, July 18th, with a better than fat chance of tying Joe Niekro for the most franchise pitching wins at 144. If the rotation holds and Roy isn’t traded earlier than the July 31st deadline, Oswalt will get two additional starts at home to either tie or break the Niekro 144 mark against the Reds July 24th and then against the Brewers on July 30th.
Now is the time to act. When something is the right thing to do, now is always the time for action. We just need to hear from the one person in this world who can make it happen as it should – and that man is Drayton McLane, Jr. So far, he’s batting 1.000 on the number retirements he’s called into history and this one is just as obvious. It just fell in the cracks during the John McMullen Astros ownership years and now needs to be restored to the light of its proper place of honor in franchise history.
If you support the hope that the Astros will see fit to retire Joe Niekro’s #36 now, please go to the primary column on that subject and post your strong opinion there. Here’s the link you need to get there.