Thursday, December 17, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Cincinnati Reds

The Cincinnati Reds have 49 postseason wins in their history as a team. It's not a spectacular total, but it's a respectable one, roughly on par with their five World Series titles.

Of those 49 wins, 26 of them came between 1970-76. That team, known as the Big Red Machine, is arguably the best in NL history - and may well have the best collection of position players in baseball history, period. They were at the peak of their considerable powers in 1975-76, so that's naturally where their best victory comes from.

1976 NLCS Game 3: Reds 7, Phillies 6. Cincinnati's starter was Gary Nolan. At age 19, in 1967, Nolan led the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings; he continued to pitch well for several years, but battled through injuries, which would eventually cost him almost all of 1973 and all of '74. He returned the next year with his K rate in the tank, but reinvented himself as a control pitcher, walking the NL's fewest batters per nine innings in both '75 and '76. He was opposed by 37-year-old lefty Jim Kaat, who had never had Nolan's strikeout capabilities to begin with, and nearly two decades into his career was even more of a finesse arm than post-injury Nolan.

The game started pretty slowly; both pitchers were flawless in the first, and both worked around lone baserunners in the second and third (Jay Johnstone singled, Tony Perez singled, Dave Cash singled, and Nolan walked, respectively). The Phillies grabbed the early lead in the fourth on back-to-back doubles by Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski; they would squander a Kaat single in the fifth and leave the bases loaded in the sixth (after Schmidt singled and Dick Allen and Johnstone walked), though Nolan was pulled for Manny Sarmiento to escape that jam. But since Kaat retired the Reds in order in innings four through six, the missed opportunities didn't sting as much as they might have.

The Phils added onto their lead in the top of the seventh. Larry Bowa led off with a walk, and Kaat bunted him to second. After the second out, Garry Maddox and Schmidt both doubled, pushing the margin to 3-0. Pedro Borbon retired Luzinski to end the inning, but with a 3-0 lead and the Reds having gone without a baserunner for the last three innings, Phillie fans would have been justified in feeling some optimism.

Whatever fuzzy feelings they had, however, dissipated quickly in the bottom of the seventh. Ken Griffey Sr. led off with a single, and Joe Morgan walked, chasing Kaat from the mound. Ron Reed relieved and promptly gave up an RBI single to Perez, followed by a sacrifice fly to George Foster. Johnny Bench walked, moving the tying run to second. Dave Concepcion popped out, but Cesar Gerinomo followed with a go-ahead two-run triple. Reed retired pinch hitter Mike Lum to end the inning, but the Reds were in front, and with a 2-0 lead in the LCS, were six outs away from clinching the pennant.

The Phillies put those plans on hold as they rallied against Rawly Eastwick in the eighth. Johnstone doubled with one out, and Bob Boone walked, with Johnstone moving to third on a wild ball four. Bowa then doubled to bring in the tying run, and after Bobby Tolan was intentionally walked to load the bases, Cash hit a sacrifice fly to put the Phils back in front, 5-4. Maddox flied out to end the inning, but Reed worked around a leadoff single by Pete Rose to keep the one-run lead intact, and it then doubled in size in the top of the ninth when Jerry Martin reached on an error and Johnstone tripled him home.

Reed remained on the mound to open the bottom of the ninth - which proved to be an ill-fated decision, as Foster and Bench started the inning with back-to-back homers, tying the game at 6. Gene Garber relieved and allowed a single to Concepcion; Tom Underwood then took the mound and walked Geronimo. Pinch hitter Ed Armbrister bunted the runners to second and third, Rose was intentionally walked, and Griffey singled, scoring Concepcion with the pennant-winning run.

This game not only occurred when the Reds were at their best; it also captured what made them that way. The team scored seven runs in this game - and those seven runs were scored by six different players, and driven in by five. Out of the exceptional starting eight, the only player who had neither a run nor an RBI was Pete Rose, who might well have driven in the winning run had he not been intentionally walked in the ninth. Yes, the team had stars; four of their players combined to win six league MVPs during the '70s, two of them have cases as the best player of all time at their respective positions, and a third is the all-time hit leader. But they were also deep enough that it didn't come as an utter shock when their eighth hitter (and four-time Gold Glove center fielder) produced a go-ahead two-run triple.

And that, along with the fact that the Reds won the World Series (and, in fact, swept the playoffs 7-0) in 1976 is why I picked this game over the better one according to WPL: 1973 NLCS Game 4, a 12-inning win over the Mets in which Perez homered to tie it at 1 in the seventh, and Rose homered for the go-ahead run in the twelfth. There are also good arguments for both of their clinchers in 1975. The first was NLCS Game 3, in which the teams traded lead-changing homers during regulation, the Pirates tied the game on a bases-loaded walk in the ninth, and the Reds put it away with two in the tenth. World Series Game 7 saw the Red Sox take an early 3-0 lead, but the Reds would pull within one on a homer by Perez, tie it in the seventh on a two-out RBI single from Rose, and win it in the ninth on a two-out RBI single from Morgan.

If you're resistant to picking a BRM game for some reason, your best option is probably 1990 World Series Game 2, which saw the Reds trade leads with the A's early on, come back to tie the game at 4 in the eighth, and win in 10 by getting three straight singles off of Dennis Eckersley.

Up next, we'll stick around the NL Central for a bit longer and see where the Cardinals come in.

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