Tommy Lasorda was 2-for-2 since taking over as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He won the pennant in his rookie year of 1977, then did it again in 1978. The Dodgers had fallen short in the World Series both times, but they were rolling. Until the 1979 Los Angeles Dodgers unraveled before everyone’s eyes.
The problem was pitching. Tommy John, the veteran lefthander and rotation ace, had gone to the Yankees in free agency. Doug Rau, a reliable fourth starter, hurt his arm in 1979 and saw his effective career come to an end. Los Angeles traded Rick Rhoden to Pittsburgh in exchange for Jerry Reuss, a swap of starting pitchers. While Reuss would become an invaluable part of this rotation in the years ahead, 1979 did not go well—a 7-14 record and 3.54 ERA.
Don Sutton, a future Hall of Famer, struggled to a 3.82 ERA. Rick Sutcliffe, in his up-and-coming years, won 17 games, but his 3.46 ERA was not that of an ace. Burt Hooton was the only effective starter with a 2.97 ERA. Although that only resulted in an 11-10 record. There were no effective relief pitchers. Not a one.
And the ERA numbers have to also consider that Dodger Stadium was and is one of the most pitcher-friendly environments in the major leagues. The ’79 edition finished seventh in the 12-team National League in composite ERA. How bad might the damage had been if the home park was Wrigley Field or somewhere more amenable to hitters?
Now on the flip side, the Los Angeles offense was potent. Even playing in Dodger Stadium, they still scored the second-most runs in the National League. First baseman Steve Garvey posted a stat line of .351 on-base percentage/.491 slugging percentage and played all 162 games in the process. Ron Cey’s stat line was .389/.499 and the third baseman hit 28 home runs. Dusty Baker slugged .455. Second baseman Davey Lopes could do it all, hitting 28 homers and stealing 44 bags. Who knows what kind of numbers these guys might have put up if they had played in Wrigley Field.
But good hitting rarely overcomes poor pitching and the ’79 Dodgers were no exception. They struggled from the get-go, losing seven of ten games in an early stretch against a good Houston Astros team and a bad Atlanta Braves squad. The Dodgers lost three straight in Philadelphia, the team who had been their foil in the NLCS the last two years, but was also headed for rougher waters in 1979.
Los Angeles was under .500 at the Memorial Day turn with a record of 23-25. But no one in the NL West was taking control. They were still in fourth place and only 3 ½ games back of the Cincinnati Reds. The Astros and San Francisco Giants were nestled in between.
This is a good spot to point out that the prior to 1994, each league was split into just an East and a West division. The Reds, Astros and Braves joined the Dodgers, Giants and San Diego Padres as members of the NL West. Only the division winner could punch a ticket to October.
And the early summer made it plain that the Dodgers would not be that division winner. Not this year. They lost five of six games to the eventual World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates. LA lost six of seven to Atlanta. In a stretch of poor play that would be astonishing for anyone, but especially the two-time defending NL champs, the Dodgers lost 31 of their last 41 games before the All-Star break. They were in last place, 17 ½ games off the pace.
The franchise showed what they were made of in the second half by not mailing in the season. The Dodgers actually went 43-26 after the break and even though they never got back in the race or got to .500, they did end up in third place. The final 79-83 record was ugly, but not as bad as it might have been.
More important, the strong finish sent a message that the events of the first half of the season were just an aberration. By 1980, the Dodgers were a contender again. And in 1981 they won the World Series.