The New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds had taken very different paths to get to the 1973 NLCS. The Mets had survived a division race that was defined by mass mediocrity and prevailed with a record of 82-79. The Reds had spent the year in a heavyweight fight with the Los Angeles Dodgers before pulling away down the stretch and posting a 99-63 mark that was the best in all of baseball. But in a short series, starting pitching has a disproportionate impact and anything can happen. What happened in this series is that Met pitching delivered an upset.
You can read more about the paths the Mets and Reds took to win their division titles, and about their key players, at the links below. This article will focus exclusively on the games of the 1973 National League Championship Series.
League Championship Series play was a best-of-five affair prior to 1985, and the homefield was done on a rotating basis. This year, the rotation called for the first two games to be in Cincinnati, with the remaining three to be played at Shea Stadium in New York.
The great Tom Seaver won the Cy Young Award for the Mets, and he got the ball for Saturday afternoon’s Game 1, facing Cincinnati’s Jack Billingham. And the great pitching that would define this series on both sides got underway.
New York threatened immediately in the top of the first. Wayne Garrett singled, Rusty Staub drew a one-out walk and John Milner singled to load the bases. But Billingham induced Cleon Jones to ground into a 6-4-3 double play to kill the threat. In the top of the second inning, after Bud Harrelson worked a two-out walk, Seaver helped his own cause with an RBI double to put the Mets on the board.
The road underdog had a 1-0 lead, but Billingham settled in, and New York stopped threatening. It was in Seaver’s hands. He pitched around a Johnny Bench double in the second. After allowing a leadoff double to Dan Driessen in the fourth, Seaver got Tony Perez, Bench, and Ken Griffey Sr. in order to preserve the lead. In the bottom of the fifth, Seaver struck out Pete Rose with two outs and the tying run on second.
Seaver kept dealing and held the 1-0 lead into the eighth. Finally, the Big Red Machine broke through. Rose homered to tie the game. And in the bottom of the ninth, with one out, Bench went deep for the walkoff blast. Cincinnati had a 2-1 win, and they had beaten New York’s ace on a day when he clearly had his stuff.
But all the Mets needed was a road split to shift homefield in their favor, and they sent Jon Matlack to the hill on Sunday afternoon to try and even the series up. Don Gullett started for Cincinnati.
Through three innings, the game was scoreless. In fact, New York was now hitless since Seaver’s RBI double the day before. Finally, the drought ended. Staub hit a solo homer in the top of the fourth.
Once again, the pitching dominated, and the Mets held a 1-0 lead. It was like a carbon copy of the day before. Through eight innings, Matlack had allowed only two hits, and with all the great players in the Cincinnati lineup, it was rightfielder Andy Kosco who had both singles.
Game 2 had a late-inning breakthrough, but this time it was New York pulling away. With one out in the top of the ninth, Felix Millan singled, Staub walked, and Cleon Jones knocked an RBI base hit, where the throw home allowed the runners to move up to second and third. After an intentional walk loaded the bases, Jerry Grote’s two-run single extended the lead to 4-0. It was all but over. The Mets added another run, and Matlack closed out a two-hit, 5-0 shutout.
There was no travel day, so the teams returned to the field on Monday in New York. There was also no night baseball in LCS play, with prime-time postseason action still reserved for the World Series. So, the remainder of this series would all be on weekday afternoons.
Jerry Koosman pitched for the Mets. Ross Grimsley had been a hero for Cincinnati in the 1972 NLCS, when he delivered a clutch Game 4 win. He was on the mound today, and it didn’t go as well.
Staub homered in the bottom of the first for the game’s first run. In the bottom of the second, Grote drew a leadoff walk. Don Hahn singled. After Harrelson lined out, Koosman singled to load up the bases. Garrett’s sac fly picked up one run, and Millan’s single plated another. It was 3-0 and Grimsley was pulled for Tom Hall. The move didn’t work. Staub’s power surge continued with a three-run blast and the Mets were ahead 6-zip.
Cincinnati tried to bounce right back in the top of the third. Denis Menke homered. Larry Stahl, batting in the pitcher’s spot, singled. Rose and Joe Morgan singled. Now it was 6-2 and there were runners on first and second with the muscle of the order coming up. But Koosman got Perez to fly to center and Bench to ground to short. New York’s lead stayed comfortable.
And the Mets wasted no time adding on. Grote again got action going in in the home half of the third with a leadoff single. He took second on a productive out and set up Koosman for the RBI single. New York added two more runs in the fourth when Millan’s leadoff walk was followed by Cleon Jones’ double and John Milner’s RBI single.
At 9-2, it was all over but the shouting, and there was plenty of that. This game is remembered for what happened in the top of the fifth. Rose singled with one out. Morgan then grounded to first base, starting a 3-6-3 double play. Rose went hard into Harrelson at second base. The benches cleared. But unless you were a Mets fan, that was the only excitement of the day. Koosman went the distance and the 9-2 score held up.
New York had been in last place as recently as August. Now, quite improbably, they were one win from ousting the best team in baseball. George Stone would take the ball for the Mets on Tuesday. The Reds pinned their hopes on Fred Norman.
For the fourth straight game, New York scored first. This time it was in the third inning. Hahn walked, becoming the game’s first baserunner. Stone drew a one-out walk, continuing the trend of tough at-bats by Met pitchers. With two down, Millan’s RBI single gave New York a 1-0 lead.
Stone was dealing. Not until Rose singled in the fourth did the Big Red Machine have a hit. And the 1-0 lead held as we went to the seventh. But, similar to Game 1, the Reds would have a late response with the long ball. This time it was Perez who went deep, with one out in the top of the seventh. The game was tied 1-1.
Similar to Game 1, the New York offense basically shut down after getting the initial run. Cincinnati looked ready to grab the lead in the top of the ninth. Rose singled, and then reliever Tug McGraw made an error on Morgan’s bunt. There were runners on first and second with none out. McGraw got Perez to pop up, but he walked Bench. Now, with the bases loaded, McGraw struck out Kosco and induced a popup from Menke. The game went extra innings.
The Reds again loaded the bases in the 10th, after McGraw issued a pair of two-out walks. Perez had a chance to be a hero, but he flew out to right. In the top of the 11th, Kosco and Menke each singled with one out, putting runners on the corners. Cesar Geronimo tried to put down a squeeze bunt with two strikes on him, but it went foul. He was out and the inning ended.
Threatening to score just wasn’t working for Cincinnati. So, they brought out the longball. Rose homered in the top of the 12th to make it 2-1. The bullpen combination of Clay Carroll and Pedro Borbon retired all nine New York hitters that came to the plate in the extra frames. The Mets had just three singles on the entire afternoon. This series would come down to a decisive Game 5.
Wednesday afternoon was a Seaver-Billingham rematch. The Reds, with momentum now on their side, threatened right away in the top of the first. With one out, Morgan and Driessen both singled. There were runners on the corners. A wild pitch allowed Driessen to move to second but kept Morgan at third. Perez was at the plate. In a big showdown, Seaver struck him out. Bench was intentionally walked, and Seaver got Griffey on a fly ball to center. The Mets’ ace had escaped.
Thus, once again, the stage was set for New York to draw first blood, and they did in their own half of the first inning. With one out, Millan and Cleon Jones both singled, then Milner walked to load the bases. Ed Kranepool lined a single to left that plated two runs. Billingham struck out Grote and limited the damage there, at 2-0.
Cincinnati bounced back. The Reds halved the lead in the third when Morgan hit a one-out double, took third on an error and scored on Driessen’s sac fly. And they tied the game in the fifth, when Rose hit a leadoff double and then scored on a clutch two-out RBI single from Perez. This decisive game of the 1973 NLCS was knotted 2-2 as we went to the bottom of the fifth.
Then came the decisive frame. Garrett led off with a double to right. Millan put a bunt down. Cincinnati went for the out at third and didn’t get it. Cleon Jones’ double put the Mets up 3-2 and had runners on second and third. Billingham was pulled for Gullett. After a walk to Milner loaded the bases, Clay Carroll came out of the Cincy bullpen.
The great Willie Mays was a shadow of his former self and was playing his last season. He still legged out an infield hit that made it 4-2 and kept the bases filled with one out. Harrelson singled to score two more runs. It was 6-2.
Seaver had all the cushion he needed, although he still doubled and scored in the bottom of the sixth to extend the lead to 7-2. There were no more threats from the Big Red Machine. With two outs in the ninth, Driessen hit a ground ball to first. Seaver covered, got the out and that was the ballgame. In one of the biggest upsets in the history of LCS play, the Mets had won the pennant.
There was no MVP given out in NLCS play until 1977. Seaver would have been the best choice. Even though he took the loss in Game 1, his final pitching line still read 16 2/3 innings pitched, a 1.62 ERA, and a complete-game victory in Game 5. Acknowledgement also has to go to Cleon Jones, who went 6-for-20, and Millan who was 6-for-19 on the series. Staub had only three hits for the entire NLCS, but they were all home runs at significant times.
On the Cincinnati side, Rose had gone 8-for-21, including a late game-tying home run in Game 1 and the go-ahead homer in Game 4. Bench went a respectable 5-for-19 and had been pitched around in several key spots. What ultimately did the Reds in was that Perez and Morgan combined to go 4-for-42. They each had some big hits—especially Perez—but shutting down these two great players was the key to New York’s ultimate pitching domination.
After this season, New York stepped back from the spotlight of contention for over a decade. Cincinnati was licking their wounds. This loss now joined postseason defeats in 1970 and 1972 to give the Big Red Machine the “can’t win the big one” tag. That tag is usually unfair, and that was the case here. Fortunately, it wouldn’t last. The Reds ultimately broke through and won the World Series in 1975, then followed it up with a dominant repeat title in 1976.