The battles between the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates defined the National League Championship Series in the 1970s, especially in the decade’s early part. Four times, these teams played for the pennant. And their battles were never better than in the 1972 NLCS, a series that was decided on its final pitch, with the Reds completing a comeback.
You can read more about the season-long journeys the Reds and Pirates took through the regular season and about their key players, at the links below. This article will focus exclusively on the games of the 1972 NLCS.
The League Championship Series round was a best-of-five affair at this time, and homefield was done on a rotation basis. This year, the rotation called for the first two games to be played in Pittsburgh, with the final three in Cincinnati. So, it was old (then new) Three Rivers Stadium that hosted the series opener on a Saturday afternoon.
It didn’t take long for the Reds to strike. Joe Morgan homered off Steve Blass and gave Cincinnati a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. But Pittsburgh immediately answered against young Don Gullett. Rennie Stennett led off the Pirate first inning with a single. Al Oliver followed with an RBI triple. After Roberto Clemente struck out, Willie Stargell doubled to give Pittsburgh the lead. And with two outs, Richie Hebner picked up Stargell with an RBI single.
With a 3-1 lead, Blass settled in. In the bottom of the fifth, the Pirates expanded their lead. Stennett again got it going, beating out an infield hit with two outs. Oliver homered. It was 5-1.
The Reds made a couple of threats to get back into the game. They had runners on the corners with one out in the sixth and put two on with two out in the seventh. Two runners reached with one out in the ninth. But the tying run never came to the plate, and Blass escaped all three jams without damage. The pitching hero of Pittsburgh’s 1971 championship run, Blass went the distance for the 5-1 win.
In a best-of-five format, the loser of Game 1 faced immediate urgency and that’s how the Reds came out in Game 2 against Bob Moose. Pete Rose and Morgan opened the game with singles to right field. Bobby Tolan, Johnny Bench, and Tony Perez ripped consecutive doubles. It was 4-0 before an out was recorded.
Bob Johnson came out of the Pittsburgh bullpen and kept it at 4-zip. The Pirates tried to respond right away by putting two on with one out. But Jack Billingham got Stargell to ground into a double play and kill the threat.
Pittsburgh got on the board in the bottom of the fourth. Oliver hit a leadoff double and scored on a base hit from Milt May. Then, in the bottom of the fifth, Gene Alley was hit by a pitch. Bill Mazeroski, the franchise legend who had been the hero of the 1960 World Series, came off the bench to bat for Johnson, who had done yeoman’s work in keeping the Pirates in the game. Mazeroski singled. The Pirates were in business, runners on first and second, no outs and a top of the order that had already been productive coming to the plate.
Billingham got Stennett to pop out, but Oliver legged out an infield hit to load the bases. Clemente hit a ground ball. The Reds got an out at second base, but didn’t turn two, and a run scored. Tom Hall came out of the Cincy bullpen, a lefthander to face Stargell. Hall got the big strikeout and kept the Cincinnati lead at 4-2.
But the Pirates kept coming. Manny Sanguillen hit a one-double in the sixth and scored on a single from Dave Cash. It was 4-3.
That was all Pittsburgh could do against Hall, though. The reliever worked the balance of the game without allowing any more hits. Morgan homered in the eighth for an insurance run. The Reds won 5-3 and picked up the road split.
Baseball was still mostly a daytime sport, so even though the remainder of this series would be during the work week, all games would be in the afternoon. On Monday in Riverfront Stadium, the Reds gave the ball to Gary Nolan, who had been terrific all season. The Pirates went with Nelson Briles in the pivotal Game 3.
Cincinnati threatened in the first when Rose doubled to lead off. But Briles struck out Morgan, got Tolan and Bench and the game stayed scoreless.
In the third inning, though, the Reds got on the board. Darrell Chaney began the frame with a single to right, then moved up on a groundout by Rose. Morgan singled to right to score the game’s first run, then stole second. Tolan singled to center, and it was 2-zip Cincinnati.
Clemente tried to rally Pittsburgh with a leadoff double in the fourth, but Nolan went through Stargell, Oliver, and Hebner and kept the Pirates off the board. The Reds missed their own opportunity in that inning’s bottom half. Bench tripled to left to get it doing. But Perez popped out. Cesar Geronimo flied out to left. Bench tried to tag up, but Stennett threw him out at the plate. After an action-packed fourth inning, it was still 2-0.
Sanguillen put Pittsburgh on the board with a solo blast in the fifth. The game stayed 2-1 into the seventh. Pedro Borbon was on in relief of Nolan. And the Cincy reliever plunked Hebner to start the inning. Sanguillen singled. Alley got a sacrifice bunt down to put runners on second and third with one out, and the lineup flipped over.
Stennett’s single tied the game 2-2. Cash got a fly ball to right. Sanguillen tried to tag. And for the second time this afternoon, a catcher was thrown out at the plate. This time, it was Geronimo making the throw. We were still tied going into the eighth.
Cincinnati’s great closer, Clay Carroll, came on. But Stargell worked a one-out walk and Oliver followed with a double. There were runners on second and third. Hebner was intentionally walked to put the double play in order. Facing Sanguillen, Carroll got the ground ball. But he didn’t get the double play. The Reds got an out at second, but the Pirates got the go-ahead run.
Now trailing 3-2, the Reds got a one-out double from Rose. Pittsburgh turned to their own excellent closer, Dave Giusti. He got Morgan and Tolan to pop out, cleaned up the ninth without further incident and the Pirates had a 2-1 series lead.
Cincinnati was again facing urgency, and relying on 22-year-old Ross Grimsley to keep their season alive on Tuesday afternoon. Pittsburgh was hoping Dock Ellis could secure a return trip to the World Series.
Rose started the Reds’ first inning with a base hit and was bunted up. But, trying to take third, on a Tolan groundball, Rose was cut down. At risk of seeing the inning get away, Bench singled to right. The great young catcher then stole second, and the errant throw from Sanguillen led to a run. Cincinnati was ahead 1-0.
Bench got another rally going in the bottom of the fourth, again with his legs. He led off with a single. With two outs, the inning was on the verge of dying. Bench again stole second. Geronimo hit a short pop fly into left that Alley made an error on. Bench scored and Geronimo ended up on third, where he scored on a bunt single from Chaney. It was a soft rally to be sure, but the Reds had some real breathing room with a 3-0 lead.
In the bottom of the sixth, Cincinnati struck again. Denis Menke doubled with one out and took third on a groundout. Chaney was intentionally walked to bring up Grimsley. The young pitcher was already in thorough command on the mound. Now, he delivered a dagger blow with his bat, a two-run double.
Grimsley went the distance with a two-hitter. Only one of those hits—a solo blast from Clemente in the seventh—left the infield. Cincinnati added two more runs. The only rout of this series went to the Reds, 7-1.
Everything was coming down to Wednesday afternoon’s Game 5 and the Blass-Gullett rematch. After a scoreless first inning, Pittsburgh drew first blood in the top of the second. Sanguillen led off with a single and scored on a double by Hebner. Cash’s RBI single staked Blass to a 2-0 lead. There were still none out, but facing the bottom of the order, Gullett stopped the damage there.
Cincinnati started to answer in the bottom of the third. Chaney hit a leadoff single. Gullett got a sac bunt down and set up Rose for the RBI double to cut the lead in half. But the Pirates immediately responded in the top of the fourth. Sanguillen, Hebner, and Cash hit consecutive singles. It was 3-1 and there were no outs.
With no margin for error left, Reds’ manager Sparky Anderson went to Borbon. The reliever came up big. He got Alley, then induced a double-play ball from Blass. Pittsburgh had the lead at 3-1, but this could have been worse. While one can’t be too hard on the Pirates, given that it was the bottom of the order, including the pitcher’s spot, that left some meat on the bone early, there had been a missed chance to kill the Reds quickly.
Geronimo’s solo homer in the fifth cut the lead to 3-2. Now, it was time for the long tension to settle in. Both pitchers were dealing. It was still 3-2 in the top of the eighth. Stennett, trying to help his team take out some insurance, hit a leadoff single. Oliver bunted him into scoring position. Clemente was intentionally walked.
Tom Hall again came out of the bullpen for the lefty-lefty matchup with Stargell. And again, the Reds reliever won the battle with a strikeout. Hall retired Sanguillen. The game stayed 3-2.
Joe Hague came off the Cincy bench to bat in the pitcher’s spot in the bottom of the eighth and worked a leadoff walk. Rose got the sac bunt down. Ramon Hernandez was summoned from the Pirate bullpen. Hernandez came up big, getting Morgan on a grounder to second and striking out Tolan. Pittsburgh was three outs away.
Giusti came on in the bottom of the ninth. Bench greeted him with a home run. We were tied 3-3.
Then Perez singled to center. George Foster came on to pinch run and moved up to second on a base hit from Menke. Suddenly, the Reds went from the brink of elimination to having the winning run in scoring position with none out. Bob Moose came out of the Pittsburgh pen.
Geronimo flew out to right, but Foster tagged and took third. Then Moose got Chaney to pop up. Pittsburgh was on the verge of escaping. Hal McRae came off the Reds’ bench to bat in Carroll’s spot. The Pirates had their #2 starter on the mound in a game where both closers were gone. If they could survive this inning, the advantage would seem to be with Pittsburgh in extra innings.
A Moose curveball darted away from McRae. It also darted away from Sanguillen. Foster raced home and the Reds won the pennant.
Any list of the great NLCS battles ever played needs to include this 1972 edition. Cincinnati had played from behind the whole way—losing Game 1, losing Game 3, and trailing in the ninth inning of Game 5—before finally prevailing.
There was no LCS MVP award given out in this era. The best statistical performer in the series was Rose, who went 9-for-20. On the Pirate side, while no one batted .300 for the series, Oliver, Sanguillen, and Stennett all had their share of key hits and Blass had been exceptional in his two starts.
But if we can pick a 1972 NLCS MVP retroactively, my choice would be Bench. His overall numbers were good—6-for-18. He had gotten the Reds’ going in the must-win Game 4, and his Game 5 home run started the winning rally.
Cincinnati went on to face the Oakland A’s in the World Series. In another riveting series, the Reds again played a decisive game at Riverfront Stadium and again trailed 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth. But this time, there was no rally, and the Big Red Machine came up just short. Pittsburgh had an offseason of tragedy, when Clemente died in a plane accident on a humanitarian mission to his native Puerto Rico.
Ultimately, both teams had plenty of winning still ahead. They met again in the 1975 NLCS, with the Reds winning and going on to take the first of two straight World Series titles. They met in the 1979 NLCS, with the Pirates winning and going on to bookend the decade with a championship. This was the National League’s great rivalry of the 1970s, and it was never better than during the five games of the 1972 NLCS.