The League Championship Series round had just been instituted in 1969. The decade of the 1970s would see this round’s great rivalry develop between the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates. They played for the pennant four different times in this decade. The 1970 National League Championship Series marked the beginning of both the decade and the rivalry. In a round that was a best-of-five affair through 1984, all three games were compelling, but it was the Reds who consistently got the big hit or the key out, sweeping their way to the pennant.
You can read more about the season-long journeys that Cincinnati and Pittsburgh took to their division titles, and about their key players, at the links below. This article will focus squarely on the games of the 1970 NLCS.
Homefield advantage worked on a rotation basis and used a 2-3 scheduling format. This NLCS would open with two games in Pittsburgh, with the balance of the series to be played in Cincinnati. It was the postseason debut for a couple of new ballparks. Three Rivers Stadium and Riverfront Stadium were seeing the first of what would be plenty of playoff and World Series baseball in the years ahead.
The Reds mounted early threats in Saturday afternoon’s Game 1. Cincy put two on with two out and both the first and second inning. Each time, Pirate starter Dock Ellis got the key out that kept the Reds off the board.
Pittsburgh had their own missed chance in the third. Gene Alley was on first base with two outs, and was unable to score on a double. With runners on second and third, Cincinnati starter Gary Nolan killed the threat. The Pirates missed another two-on/two-out chance in the bottom of the fourth
The scoreless tie went to the sixth inning when Cincy’s Tony Perez ripped a double into the leftfield gap to start the frame. Johnny Bench’s fly ball moved Perez to third. Lee May had the chance to break the scoring drought…but he grounded out to third. Ellis escaped and yet another rally ended with nothing.
It was the Pirates’ chance in the bottom of the eighth when Willie Stargell slashed a one-out double. Nolan responded with consecutive strikeouts. In the bottom of the ninth, Pittsburgh’s Matty Alou beat out an infield hit with two outs. He made an understandable attempt to steal second. Bench threw him out. There had been plenty of action in this first game, but no runs as we went to extra innings .
Ty Cline batted in Nolan’s spot and opened the top of the 10th with a triple. Pete Rose singled and we finally had someone on the board. With two outs, Bench was intentionally walked. The move didn’t work. May doubled in both runs for some insurance. Clay Carroll came on in relief of Nolan and closed the bottom of the 10th without incident. Cincinnati had a road win, 3-0.
The Pirates sent Luke Walker to the mound the following afternoon for Game 2. The Reds went to lefty Jim Merritt. And the top of the first in Game 2 went much the same as the opener. After Walker hurt his own cause with an error and then gave up a single, Cincy had two on with no one out. Bench’s line drive went directly to Alley at shortstop, who promptly doubled off Rose. End of threat.
In the top of the third, speedy Reds’ centerfielder Bobby Tolan began to put his imprint on the series. He singled to left, stole second and then took third on a throwing error. Moments later, Tolan scored on a wild pitch. Having shown his speed, Tolan demonstrated his power in the top of the fifth. A solo blast put the Reds up 2-zip.
The fans of Pittsburgh had yet to see their team score a run through a game and a half when the Pirates came to bat in the top of the sixth. Second baseman Dave Cash doubled with one out, prompting Cincinnati manager to summon Carroll. It didn’t stop the great Roberto Clemente, whose base hit finally put Pittsburgh the board. Manny Sanguillen followed another single. There were runners on first and second with one out in a 2-1 game. Carroll buckled down, got the two outs he needed and preserved the lead.
And that was the last time the Pirates made a real threat. Tolan got his team an insurance run in the eight, singling and then scoring on a double by Perez. Both games had been tight and nerve-wracking. But 3-1 final meant the road team had taken both. Cincinnati was going home in complete command of this NLCS.
Night baseball had been in place since 1935, but it still was not used in postseason play. So Monday’s Game 3 took place in the afternoon, right alongside the ALCS Game 3, where the Baltimore Orioles were also looking to close out a home sweep.
Their back to the wall, Pittsburgh got right after Cincinnati starter Tony Cloninger. Freddie Patek worked a leadoff walk and moved up on a groundball out. Patek tried to force the action and was thrown out stealing third. Which was unfortunate, because behind him, Clemente singled, Stargell walked and Al Oliver singled.
The Pirates led 1-0, but it could have been more. Stealing third with those bats coming up smells of desperation. Which Pittsburgh’s offense could hardly be blamed for after the first two games, but was costly nonetheless. It got even more costly when Perez and Bench hit back-to-back homers in the bottom of the inning to put the Reds up 2-1.
Cloninger walked two men to start the top of the second. Moose dropped a sacrifice bunt, which only partially worked. He got the runner to third, but the Reds picked up the force at second. The double play was still in order and that proved decisive. Patek’s rough start to Game 3 continued when he grounded into a 5-4-3 twin killing.
Moose was settled, but his lineup missed a chance in the fourth when Richie Hebner doubled with one out in the fourth, but was stranded. In the fifth, Alou hit a one-out single and was on second with two outs. Stargell’s single to right finally tied the game 2-2. In the top of the sixth, Hebner hit another double, this time to start the inning. Bill Mazeroski’s bunt attempt failed and the Reds got the out at third and then killed the threat.
It was another tense pitcher’s duel as we reached the bottom of the eighth. Moose got the first two outs, but then walked Cline and allowed a single to Rose. Joe Gibbons came on in relief. Tolan was at the plate. He singled to left, the Reds were up 3-2 and were on the threshold of a pennant.
Wayne Granger was on in relief. After getting the first two outs, he couldn’t get Clemente, who singled to right and kept the series alive. Reds’ manager Sparky Anderson, with a hook that would be normal today, but was quite unusual in 1970, called on young Don Gullett. Stargell singled to right. There were runners on the corners. But it wouldn’t be the 1970 NLCS if the pitcher didn’t get the key out in a tight spot. Gullett induced Oliver to ground out to second. And, as a beloved Cincinnati Reds radio announcer might say, this National League pennant belonged to the Reds.
There was no MVP for NLCS play given until 1978. If we can double back and hand one out retroactively, it would have to be Tolan. He had gone 5-for-12 with a home run in a series where few hitters did anything. He had driven in the winning run of the series opener. Kudos also have to go to Perez, who collected four hits in the three games. On the Pittsburgh side, only Stargell’s 6-for-12 performance stood out among players who played the entire series. Hebner acquitted himself in his two starts, going 4-for-6.
Cincinnati’s good fortune in close games ran out when they lost a couple tough ones to Baltimore to open the 1970 World Series, and the Reds ultimately lost the series in five games. But they—and the Pirates—were just getting started. Each team would win two World Series titles in the decade that was just beginning. Their rivalry started at the 1970 NLCS.