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Original Issue

There was never any doubt

Well, at least not in the last game, when Houston came back from three straight losses to win the NL West in a playoff

In the interval before the Los Angeles Dodgers' last time at bat in 1980, as late-afternoon shadows lengthened over the playing field, Dodger Stadium organist Helen Dell reached way back into her repertoire and played that inspirational ditty from the early days of World War II, We Did It Before and We Can Do It Again. More than 50,000 fans, some of whom actually may have remembered the tune, began clapping and singing and cheering and stomping their feet on the concrete. In truth, the Dodgers had done it before, winning three straight one-run games from the Houston Astros to extend the season into this sudden-death playoff. The Dodgers had looked as if they would overturn odds greater than any since the Light Brigade closed ranks at Balaklava. But their number was up. They did it before, but they couldn't do it again, and the Astros—the perennially downtrodden Astros, the Astros who had been threatening to blow the works—won the first division crown in their 19-year history. For the Dodgers, it was their fourth loss in five regular-season playoffs for a league or division title.

The Astros won this playoff game with ridiculous ease behind the almost immaculate six-hit pitching of Joe Niekro, a 20-game winner for the second season in a row. Niekro gave the Dodgers one run; his team got him seven—two in the first inning when the Dodgers committed two errors, two in the third when five straight Astros hit safely and three in the fourth when nine men came to bat. Actually, Art Howe would have been enough. The Astro first baseman drove in four runs with three hits, including a third-inning homer. The Dodgers, who tried six pitchers in the hopeless cause, were lucky the score was not more humiliating. In their defense, they were playing without Third Baseman Ron Cey, a hero in two of the four climactic games. Cey had fouled a pitch off his ankle the previous evening and was on the bench. But on this long day, it is questionable if any of the L.A. sluggers could have dented the dancing Niekro knuckleball.

"I went into this game knowing we couldn't lose," said the Houston ace. "We'd had three tough, tight games and we came here to hack this one out the hard way. We had to win it." They did. But what a time they had doing it.

The Dodgers forced the playoff with an extraordinary 4-3 come-from-behind victory on Sunday before a nearly hysterical crowd of 52,339. The Astros, struggling to regain their composure after the successive defeats, attained a 3-0 lead in the first four innings. They were, in a sense, fighting for time, because their starting pitcher, Vern Ruhle, winner of three straight, had torn the index finger of his pitching hand on a dugout nail two days before. The injured digit had been stitched together, but Ruhle and the Astros knew it could tear at any moment. It did, in the third inning, after Ruhle's second pitch to Dodger Relief Pitcher Bobby Castillo. Joaquin Andujar replaced him and survived the inning without incident. But the Dodgers nicked him for a run in the fifth when Davey Lopes singled home Derrel Thomas.

In the seventh, with the mighty crowd exhorting them, the Dodgers rallied for another run, driven in by Manny Mota, the first-base coach/pinch hitter extraordinaire. Mota's liner to right, which scored Pedro Guerrero, was his 150th career pinch hit, a major league record. He had left the coaching box at the start of the inning and was replaced by Pitcher Don Sutton, who himself would figure in the final heroics. Mota returned to the box waving his cap to the fans.

Steve Garvey led off the eighth with a tricky bouncer to third, which Enos Cabell couldn't control. Cey then worked Astro Reliever Frank LaCorte to a 3-2 count. After fouling off three pitches, and receiving his ankle injury, Cey drove a fastball over the 385-foot sign in left centerfield for what proved to be the game-winning homer.

In the Astros' ninth, Dodger Reliever Steve Howe gave up hits to Pinch Hitter Gary Woods and Cabell. Terry Puhl's force-out erased Woods, but Cabell's hit advanced Puhl to third and Manager Tom Lasorda came for Howe. Lasorda's choice was, of all people, Sutton, who had been recommended for the job by the injured Reggie Smith. "I asked Don in the dugout if he was ready," said Smith. "When he said he was, I told Tommy to use him." Sutton ended the game by inducing Denny Walling to ground out to second.

The tension throughout the series was palpable, even, as Jerry Reuss suggested, audible and visible. "You could hear it," the Dodger lefty said. "I loved it. I even stopped to take a look at it. I wanted to share the experience with the fans." The fans' support was so thunderous that they became a sort of 10th Dodger on the field. And as they usually are in Dodger Stadium, all the crowds were huge—49,642 and 46,085 for the first two games. The team had attracted more than three million fans for the second time in its Los Angeles history, but unlike more complacent assemblages of the past, the fans last weekend were tension-racked, howling mobs. After all, this seemed certain to be a last hurrah of their own, because the Dodgers' 3-2 loss to the Giants on Thursday had dropped them three games behind the Astros with three to play. A sweep would force a deciding fourth game. Anything less than that would mean extinction. "No one can beat us four in a row," the Astros' Joe Morgan had said. "I mean no one."

The Dodgers were willing to give it a try. Over the door of their clubhouse was posted this stern admonition: FOR THOSE WHO DON'T THINK WE CAN WIN FOUR IN A ROW, DO US A FAVOR. DON'T GET DRESSED! Everyone was properly attired Friday night, but with the score 2-1 against them in the ninth they seemed to be outfitted for a funeral—their own. However, the fans wouldn't permit any dirges. They were on their feet at the start of the inning, cheering on behalf of an apparently hopeless cause.

It worked. With one out, Astro Second Baseman Rafael Landestoy booted a double-play grounder. Then, with two away, Cey, fighting off the effects of a pulled hamstring, singled off Ken Forsch to score pinch runner Rudy Law with the tying run. Forsch threw just one pitch in the 10th, a high slider that Joe Ferguson belted into the pavilion seats in leftfield for the game-winning home run. Ferguson tossed his batting helmet into the air before he reached third, and he threw his arms open wide in the manner of a track man breasting the tape as he headed home. He was lost there in a tangle of laughing, cheering, crying teammates. "This was the most emotional game I've ever been involved in," said Ferguson. And it was only the beginning. The Dodgers would have to do it all over again the next day.

They seemed remarkably at ease before the Saturday game. There was no white-knuckled tension, only the usual clubhouse clowning. Reuss, the last-minute choice as starting pitcher because of Bob Welch's groin pull, was seen in conference with a lean and leathery Sandy Koufax. Was Reuss receiving some eleventh-hour tactical data from that immortal, who helps Dodger pitchers in his spare time? "No," said Reuss, "we were talking about his asthma."

It was a warm, sultry day, and the sunlight was filtered through a murky cloud of smog—daytime weather typical of the Los Angeles basin in summer and early fall. But the Dodgers rarely play in daylight, and Centerfielder Guerrero, for one, found the experience less than stimulating. He misplayed two balls and misjudged two others, probably because he never flipped down his sunglasses. "I had a bad time out there," he would later say, an understatement.

The Dodgers took a 1-0 lead in the second inning when Garvey, leading off, blooped a single off Morgan's glove and scored on Thomas' two-out single. Morgan was suffering from a painfully twisted left knee, and he blamed his failure to reach Garvey's ball on his infirmity. Ordinarily, he said, "I would have had it in my pocket." It was a big day for bloop hits. Pitching his legendary hardest, Astro fireballer Nolan Ryan struck out nine, giving him 200 for the year, and allowed six hits, only two of which were solid.

Reuss, with Guerrero's unwanted help, was also victimized by nubbers and dying quails. Although working with three days' rest instead of his customary four, he was still able to mow the Astros down with his sinking fastball. He had retired nine batters in succession when Jose Cruz singled softly over second base in the fourth. Cruz stole second and advanced to third on Cesar Cedeno's ground out. Art Howe followed with a short fly ball into centerfield, which Guerrero, blinded by sun, smog and a background of white shirts behind home plate, played into a run-scoring single. The 1-1 tie was short-lived, though, as Garvey led off the Dodgers' half of the inning with a towering homer into the leftfield bullpen.

The Astros threatened again in the ninth with two more bloops. Cedeno hit one to right with two outs, and Howe dropped yet another at the feet of poor Guerrero. "I only saw one ball good all day," Guerrero said. "And because of all the crowd noise, I couldn't even hear the crack of the bat. If a ball is hit well, you can tell by the sound. Today I couldn't." But the next batter, Woods, ended the game with a grounder to second, and new life was breathed into the supposed corpse.

The Astros were halfway to doing what Morgan said they could never do. And each loss was by one run, 3-2 and 2-1. Forsch and Ryan had done their jobs well, but their Dodger counterparts, Sutton and Reuss, had done theirs even better. Reuss could have told them that would happen even before they started playing on Saturday, because he had awakened that morning with a premonition: "I looked at my wife and said, 'I can't explain this, but there's a lot more going into this than in a normal game.' I just knew it would be close, 1-0 or 2-1." His mustachioed face took on an ethereal look. "I sense some things I can't explain," he explained. The win was Reuss' 18th against only six losses.

And now it looked as if the Dodgers were shifting some of the pressure to the other clubhouse. They had won a record-tying 54th game at Dodger Stadium, including six of eight over the Astros. And twice during the season they had swept four-game series, so with two wins already tucked away, the situation didn't seem quite so hopeless as it had two days before. But the drama was still there.

"We're emotionally high," said Lopes. "We've been battling and scrapping all season. We know that one bad play and it could be all over for us."

Morgan sat in the Astros' clubhouse, his twisted knee swathed in bandages. "We were one out away from winning on Friday," he said calmly, "and with some luck here and there, we could have won today. But they still have a job in front of them. The pressure is still over there. But if they win again, the pressure is definitely over here."

On Sunday the Dodgers did win again, but on Monday there was pressure enough for both teams.


Life was a real burden for Virdon until Monday.


Reuss beat Houston on Saturday, while Cey got the game-tying hit Friday and the winner Sunday.