The Los Angeles Dodgers are a playoff mainstay in our own day. But in 1974, they were in the postseason for the first time since 1966, and the first time since the leagues split into divisions. In our own day, the Pittsburgh Pirates are a small-market underdog. But in 1974, the Pirates were one of the game’s great powers, in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. When these two franchises met in the 1974 NLCS, the Dodgers decisively captured the series and won the pennant.
You can read more about the paths each team took to its division title, and about their key players, at the links below. This page takes an exclusive focus on the games of the 1974 National League Championship Series.
Homefield for LCS play was done on a rotation basis, rather than merit. Thus, even though the Dodgers had the best record in baseball and finished 14 games ahead of the Pirates, this series would open with two games in Pittsburgh. The remaining games of what was then a best-of-five round would take place in Los Angeles.
Saturday afternoon’s opener saw Don Sutton take the mound for the Dodgers. Jerry Reuss would one day be a postseason hero in Los Angeles. But in 1974, he was a Pirate, and their Game 1 starter.
L.A. got something going in the top of the second when Joe Ferguson led off with a single, and then moved to third on Bill Russell’s one-out base hit to rightfield. Reuss struck out Steve Yeager and had a chance to escape unscathed with Sutton coming to the plate. But Reuss suddenly lost his control—he walked Sutton to load the bases and walked Davey Lopes to force in the game’s first run.
Reuss rebounded and pitched well the balance of the afternoon. But it was already too late. Sutton was dealing. He tossed a complete-game four-hitter. Even with Dodger third baseman Ron Cey booting a couple errors, Sutton only allowed a runner to reach second base once.
The game stayed 1-0 all the way to the top of the ninth. At which point, Sutton stepped up with his bat. He singled to lead off the inning. With two outs, Jimmy Wynn doubled home a big insurance run, and Ferguson’s single added one more. The final was 3-0.
A big sports Sunday was next, with both cities also having top NFL teams. The Pittsburgh Steelers were an emerging power, en route to what would be the first of four Super Bowl titles in this decade. Pittsburgh fans would have to choose whether to watch Game 2 or to catch the Steelers down in Houston. The Los Angeles fans had it easier—the playoff-bound Rams would play Detroit later in the day. Baseball started at 1 PM EST, with the Dodgers going to Andy Messersmith against the Pirates’ Jim Rooker.
Lopes opened the game by working Rooker for a walk, and then went to third when Bill Buckner singled to right. Wynn’s fly ball was too shallow to score a run, but Steve Garvey followed with a single to put L.A. up 1-zip. Ferguson walked and the bases were loaded with one out. Cey’s rough start to this series continued when he popped out. Bill Russell lined out and Rooker had kept it a 1-0 game.
But Cey was about to turn his game around, and that started in the top of the fourth. He homered for a 2-0 lead. The Dodgers threatened in the fifth, when Lopes singled, stole second and took third on an errant throw. But Buckner, Wynn, and Garvey all failed to pick him up. Another chance to expand the lead died in the seventh when Garvey struck out with two runners on base.
The Pittsburgh bats were still doing nothing, but they were also in the game when the bottom of the seventh arrived. With the bottom two spots in the order up, it was pinch-hitters who got the Pirates going. Paul Popovich and Richie Zisk both singled. Rennie Stennett put down a sac bunt to set up the tying runs on second and third with just one out.
Richie Hebner grounded out to first, as the Dodgers took the out and allowed the run. Al Oliver then legged out an infield hit. The game was tied 2-2.
Dave Giusti was on in relief for Pittsburgh. Cey, on his way to a four-hit day, led off the top of the eighth with a double. Russell beat out an infield hit. Willie Crawford singled to left and just like that, the Dodgers had the lead back. This time they built on it. Manny Mota singled. It was 4-2, there were runners on the corners and still no one out. Giusti was pulled. Lopes promptly singled to make it 5-2.
It could have been worse. A wild pitch moved the runners to second and third. But Buckner tapped one back to the pitcher that failed to score a run. After an intentional walk, Garvey’s tap-back to the mound turned into an inning-ending double play. But the Dodgers had all they needed. Their Cy Young Award-winning reliever Mike Marshall set the last six hitters down in order. L.A. won 5-2 in a game where they had left twelve runners on base. And they were going home in complete command of this series.
Prime-time baseball was not yet a thing in the LCS, so the midweek games ahead would all be played during the day. Tuesday afternoon’s Game 3 began at 12:40 PM local time. Bruce Kison shouldered the burden of keeping the Pirates alive. Doug Rau was looking to put the Dodgers in the World Series.
Pittsburgh came out like a team with their back to the wall. Stennett opened the game with a single to right. Oliver drew a one-out walk. And Willie Stargell homered. The Pirates had their first lead of the series at 3-0 and they weren’t done. A Garvey error with two outs led to a home run by Hebner. Kison had been staked to a 5-zip lead.
Kison’s life was made even easier in the top of the third when singles from Oliver, Zisk, Hebner, and Mario Mendoza produced two more runs. Kison worked into the seventh, allowing just two hits. The 7-0 score held, and Pittsburgh still had life.
What Los Angeles had was Sutton going back to the mound for Wednesday’s Game 4. He would rematch with Reuss.
The Dodgers needed to re-establish their momentum, and they wasted no time in doing so. Lopes opened the home half of the first with a walk and a stolen base. He scored on a double from Wynn. In the third inning, Wynn walked. Garvey homered. It was 3-0, and with no time to waste, Pirate manager Danny Murtaugh pulled Reuss. Ken Brett, the older brother of a soon-to-be-more-famous third baseman in Kansas City, came out of the Pittsburgh bullpen.
It didn’t work, and it didn’t matter. In the fifth, Garvey followed another Wynn walk with another two-run blast. In the sixth, after a Yeager walked, Lopes tripled, and then scored on a throwing error. It was 7-0. The reason it didn’t matter, is that Sutton was as dominant today as he’d been in the series opener. The afternoon turned into one long party in Dodger Stadium.
Pittsburgh got their lone run when Stargell hit a solo blast in the seventh. But Los Angeles scored twice in the seventh, and three more times in the eighth. Sutton added an RBI single and pitched eight innings of three-hit ball. Marshall came on to close. He wrapped up the 12-1 win by striking out Hebner, and the champagne could flow.
There was no MVP given out in NLCS play until 1977, but there’s little doubt Sutton would have won the award. He pitched 17 innings, and allowed just seven hits, getting two of his team’s three wins. He’d also contributed at the plate in each game.
Other notable performers for Los Angeles included Garvey and Russell, who each collected seven hits. Lopes went 4-for-15, and the speedy leadoff man also drew five walks. Stargell’s six hits and two home runs were the only noteworthy positive for Pittsburgh.
The Dodgers went on to the World Series where they faced the Oakland A’s. L.A.’s great season, one where they had the best record in baseball, ended in disappointment when they fell in five games and Oakland secured a third straight title.
But neither franchise was going anywhere. The Pirates made it back to the NLCS in 1975. After three subsequent years of contending baseball that left them short of the playoffs, they returned to October and won a World Series in 1979. While Los Angeles temporarily slipped behind Cincinnati’s great Big Red Machine in 1975 and 1976, the Dodgers returned to the Fall Classic in 1977 and 1978, and then won it all in 1981.