Can this World Series match the madness of the 1980 Phillies-Astros NLCS? 

Not many predicted the Phillies to win it all in 1980. Many baseball writers predicted Philadelphia to finish fourth in the NL East after they had lost in the NLCS three straight years from 1976-78 before finishing fourth with 84 wins in ’79. They appeared to have made the right call as the Phillies were hovering around .500 before going on a hot streak to end the season. They needed to beat the Expos in two out of three games to finish the season and win the NL East by one game over Montreal.

Meanwhile, the Astros were at their peak and many expected them to succeed in ’80. Tal Smith had been re-hired as the GM after the Astros lost 97 games in 1975 and he had spent the ensuing years remaking the roster. He infused the ballclub with young talent before signing Joe Morgan and Nolan Ryan in the winter to strengthen the ballclub.

But Houston got cold entering October, losing its final three games of the regular season to fall into a tie with the Dodgers for the NL West, necessitating a Game 163 tiebreaker. Joe Niekro, who won 20 games that year, pitched a complete game against L.A., giving up only one run in the Astros’ win.

“It didn’t help that we had to play because we had to use Joe Niekro, who was probably our ace that year,” Astros outfielder Terry Puhl said. “He was about as automatic as anybody. We would have got two starts from Joe in the playoffs, where now we only got one.”

No one could have predicted it at the time, but that set the stage for what just may be the greatest postseason series in history. There were comebacks, blown leads, comebacks after blown leads, triple plays that weren’t … and the final four games of the five-game series (The LCS switched to a best-of-seven format in 1985) all went to extra innings. 

“Obviously I had a personal interest, so it’s fair to say I’m maybe a little bit biased, but I still think it’s the most exciting postseason series there’s ever been,” Smith told in a recent phone call.

“That to me, it was probably one of the greatest playoffs ever,” then-Phillies shortstop Larry Bowa said recently on MLB Network.

Game 1 gave no indication of the madness that was to come. The Phillies won at home, 3-1, behind seven solid innings from Steve Carlton, two scoreless frames from Tug McGraw to close it out and a home run from Greg “The Bull” Luzinski. It would be the only home run in the entire series — something hard to fathom when watching baseball today.

Game 2 went the Astros’ way, 7-4, with Houston scoring four runs in the top of the 10th inning to knot the series at 1.

The series shifted to Houston for Game 3, when Niekro pitched 10 shutout innings before Dave Smith earned the W by working around a walk and a hit in the 11th inning to keep the game knotted at 0. Morgan led off the bottom half of the inning with a triple before scoring on Denny Walling’s sacrifice fly.

Up two games to one and with the final two games to be played at the Astrodome with its raucous fans, Houston had to like its chances to advance to the World Series.

“The Astrodome was an enclosed building and then the sound had nowhere to go,” Phillies pinch-hitter Del Unser said. “It was loud, it hurt your ears. They rung after it. It’s probably why I’ve got hearing aids now.”

Then came Game 4 — one of the weirdest and wildest contests in postseason history.

There were five double plays turned — four started by an outfielder. There was a sacrifice fly that was then taken off the board when the Phillies appealed that the Astros’ Luis Pujols had left third base early. A fourth-inning triple play was even changed into a double play following a 20-minute argument among the umpires that led to both teams protesting the game.

Despite it all, when Philadelphia came up to hit in the eighth inning, the Astros held a 2-0 lead and were just six outs away from the World Series. The Phillies then scored three runs in the inning on four straight singles and, naturally, a sacrifice fly double play from Manny Trillo to take the lead, 3-2.

After Puhl hit an RBI single to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth, fans were treated to more free baseball.

With two outs and Pete Rose on first in the top of the 10th, Luzinski doubled off the wall and Rose raced around third base, ignoring the stop sign, and collided with catcher Bruce Bochy at home to take the lead, 4-3.

“What I saw when I came around third was the catcher fighting with the throw,” Rose said at the time. “The throw wasn’t a good one. It would have been hard for anybody to handle it. So I went in any way I could.”

“He keeps saying that was the first time he ever missed that and ran through a sign,” Luzinski said on Wednesday, incredulous about Rose and his baseball instincts. “I said to him, ‘Well, it was a good time to do it!’ It was a game-winner.”

Trillo then doubled in Luzinski to add an insurance run and Tug McGraw closed it out for the Phillies’ 5-3 win.

“There has never been a game to compare with that one,” McGraw said afterwards. “There has never been a game I’ve ever witnessed that has been more exciting, more controversial, more interesting than the game I just saw. It was like a motorcycle ride through an art museum … you see the pictures but afterward you don’t remember what you saw.”

The series was now knotted up, but still, the Astros weren’t nervous: Nolan Ryan was on the mound for Game 5

Ryan was his usual dominant self, striking out eight batters and giving up only two runs as Houston held a 5-2 lead going into the eighth inning. Once again, Houston was just six outs away from its first trip to the World Series.

“Almost have to caution yourself about looking ahead, but that’s just the normal tendency,” Smith said. “Six outs away, one of the premier pitchers in the game on the mound and you’re feeling pretty good. But it all unraveled in just a series of events.”

Somehow, the Phillies weren’t concerned. Rose told Bowa that if he got on base, Philadelphia would win the game. Naturally, Bowa led off with a single.

“Well, you gotta be confident or else you’re done,” Luzinski said about the team’s mindset. “That was it. It would have been probably our last hurrah as a team, staying together in ’80. We were there before and lost to the Reds and Dodgers a few times. This was our fourth try, so it was very important to win these games.”

Bob Boone then hit a ball back to the mound that Ryan couldn’t handle.

“Tough play in some circumstances. If you did that 100 times, you might turn into a double play more times than not,” Smith remembered.

“So, I get down to first base and Pete Rose say Greg Gross then dropped down a bunt single and Rose worked a walk to drive in a run and end Ryan’s night.

“The big thing people want to know [is] why Ryan didn’t get taken out in that inning,” Bowa said. “It happened so fast. … We had the bases loaded. I got a base hit. Boonie hit a ball off Nolan Ryan’s glove that could have been a double play. It would have been a tough play. But that was an infield single and Greg Gross bunted the very first pitch down the third-base line. We had the bases loaded before you could snap your fingers.

Keith Moreland then hit an RBI groundout and Mike Schmidt struck out. The Astros were one out away from escaping the inning, when Unser stepped to the plate. The longtime MLB veteran was now 35 and playing in the first postseason of his career.

Earlier in the series, Unser wasn’t feeling great about his swing, so he had asked hitting coach Billy DeMars to go down into the tunnel to help him out.

“He said, ‘Man, we’ve had 162 games [and you’re not ready?]'” Unser remembered. “He acquiesced and we went down to the tunnel. I hit until it just felt right. I didn’t have a specific thing. I just wanted everything to be in the order it needed to be. He helped me there and it paid off later.”

On the first pitch of the at-bat, Unser hit Ken Forsch’s cut fastball over the second baseman’s head to tie the game.

“I was just trying to get something out over the plate to drive up the middle,” Unser said. “I knew if I tried to pull the ball, it opened up too many holes in my swing. And we just needed base runners. We needed to come back. I didn’t want to wait too long in the count. I don’t even know what the count was. Some of these guys remember chapter and verse. I’m not like that — the situation that dictated what you did. I just tried to get a hit.”

Manny Trillo followed with a two-run triple and the Phillies were up, 7-5.

Naturally, the Astros weren’t done yet.

They placed two singles sandwiched around a strikeout to start the frame, including Puhl’s record-setting 10th hit of the series. Even in that situation, with a trip to the World Series on the line, Rose took a minute to congratulate his opposition.

” Puhl remembers. “I’m going like, ‘What’s going on?’ I look up at the scoreboard and I read that I’ve just broken Pete Rose’s record. I look at him, like ‘This is awesome. You’re competing against him, but yet he’s got the competitiveness and sportsmanship to say those words: ‘Records are made to be broken.'”

RBI singles from Rafael Landestoy and Jose Cruz tied the game up at 7, and after both teams were held scoreless in the ninth, for the fourth straight game, the NLCS went to extra innings.

“Your body is up and you’re operating on a very limited amount of sleep,” Puhl said. “I was up early in the morning. All our games were in the evenings. But it didn’t even seem to affect me at all. I was ready to roll. It’s just such an exciting time.”

As the GM sitting upstairs and watching, Smith enjoyed it less.

“It’s very, very intense, and there’s nothing you can do. It’s out of your control,” Smith said. “It’s almost agonizing in a sense to watch because there’s so much at stake. I’ve heard managers and other people say it’s easier playing the game than watching it.”

After Schmidt struck out to start the top of the 10th, Unser laced a double. Trillo then flew out and the Astros were one out away from escaping the inning. But Maddox hit a dying liner to center field that Puhl couldn’t snag. Unser raced home with what would prove to be the series-winning run.

“What I remember is getting to the dugout and getting the hell beat out of me. That was exciting,” Unser said. “Pete Rose patting me on the back and stuff like that was just terribly exciting. To be a part of it, after all the years I had played, was really special for me and my family.”

Dick Ruthven then came in to close out the game in the bottom of the 10th, retiring the side in order — including stopping Puhl from picking up his 11th hit of the series.

“I remember the last at-bat I had was probably the hardest ball I hit in the entire series,” Puhl said. “Gary Maddox ran it down in right-center. It was just a time period where I was on everything.”

Though they lost, everyone held their head high following such a remarkable series.

“You can’t convince me which is the better team,” reliever Joe Sambito said after the game. “That’s about as even a series as you’ll ever find. Some guys may take it harder than others, but I’m proud to be an Astro.”

“I went to the clubhouse after the game and had private, individual, just very brief conversations with most of the team,” Smith said. “Many players were in tears and I wasn’t far from that either. Just a pat on the back and a handshake and a thank you. I was very proud of them.”

Though the style of play may be very different these days, the teams are not. The 2022 Astros may be postseason regulars the way the 1980 team wasn’t, but they are still a powerhouse who are widely expected to take their second World Series title. Meanwhile, the 2022 Phillies have stormed to the World Series on the back of a strong second half — just like that ballclub in ’80 — and a red-hot postseason to find themselves four wins away from a World Series title.

“It was really electric. It’s very similar to this current team right now — except they’re doing it with the long ball,” Unser said. “But we just kept going. Somebody gets on, somebody gets them over, somebody gets him in. … It takes the Phillies if you will, I mean, it takes the whole team.”

As for who is going to win? Luzinski has an idea.

“It comes down to getting the ball bouncing the right way for you,” Luzinski said. “You can kind of feel that happen — that mojo, that momentum going your way. Keep that mo’ on your side. A smaller ballpark in Houston, a good hitter’s ballpark in Philadelphia, so I think it’s the team hitting the most home runs — they’re gonna probably win this Series.”

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