The 1979 Cincinnati Reds said goodbye to Pete Rose via free agency and responded by winning a division title. The 1980 Cincinnati Reds said goodbye to another big part of the great Big Red Machine that had been dominant in the 1970s. Joe Morgan departed. The ’80 Reds were still a good team and still contended to the last week of the season, but this proved to be one departure too many.
Cincinnati also parted ways with starting pitcher Fred Norman. Not nearly as big a name as Morgan, but it was a blow to a pitching staff that had little margin for error and would hold the Reds back in this 1980 season.
Frank Pastore was a solid young arm who went 13-7 with a 3.27 ERA. Tom Seaver was a reliable veteran arm, winning ten games with a 3.64 ERA. Charlie Leibrandt and Mike LaCoss were each functionable, with ten wins and ERAs in the 4s. Mario Soto was a rising young talent that did spot starts and worked out of the bullpen, posting a 3.07 ERA. Tom Hume was a respectable closer with a 2.56 ERA and 25 saves.
But with Seaver not having a vintage year, there was no ace. There were continuity problems, with no one making 30 starts for the year. And there was little depth in the bullpen. The Reds finished ninth in the 12-team National League for staff ERA. If they were going to win games, they would have to hit.
Fortunately, they had some great players who could do just that. The legendary Johnny Bench was still behind the plate and at age 32, he slugged .483 with 24 homers. Dave Collins, a speedy centerfielder, posted a .366 on-base percentage and stole 79 bases. Ken Griffey finished with a stat line of .364 OBP/.454 slugging. Dan Driessen’s OBP was .377 at first base. Playing on the artificial turf of Riverfront Stadium, Cincinnati could hit the ball in the gaps and was third in the National League in doubles.
Everything in this offense ultimately came back to George Foster. The left fielder was one of the most feared hitters in the National League. And while he didn’t have a spectacular year, no one was going to turn away his .362/.473 stat line, his 25 homers or his 93 RBI. The Reds scored the third-most runs in the National League.
Cincinnati came blazing out of the gate with a 12-2 record against a schedule that featured a steady diet of the lowly Atlanta Braves. Then the Reds lost six of their next ten. The early season was marked by more up and downs, with a four-game win streak and a four-game losing streak. By Memorial Day the record was 22-18.
The old NL West included the Reds, Braves and Houston Astros, along with current members in the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres. Only the winner went to the postseason, advancing directly into the League Championship Series. A year ago, Cincy nipped Houston in a good NL West race. But no one could discount Los Angeles, who had gone to the World Series in 1977 and 1978 before mysteriously falling apart in 1979. At the Memorial Day turn it was the Dodgers who were in first place. The Reds were three games back, with the Astros and Padres each 3 ½ back.
Los Angeles was in town for a Memorial Day doubleheader. Seaver lost the opener 4-0, only getting four hits worth of support. But Cincinnati won the nightcap 5-4 thanks to a grand slam from Foster in the fifth inning. Foster homered again in the Tuesday night series finale, Griffey hit a three-run jack and the Reds took the series with a 6-1 win.
Cincinnati made a return visit to Dodger Stadium in early June. Doug Bair had a rough time of it on Friday and Saturday. The reliever gave up a tiebreaking walkoff home run in the series opener. On Saturday, trailing just 2-1 in the eighth, Bair coughed up three insurance runs. The Reds salvaged the finale on Sunday 5-4 behind three hits and a home run from Knight.
Cincinnati was spotty for the rest of June and came into the Fourth of July weekend against Houston with a record of 38-37. The Astros—who had signed Morgan–and the Dodgers had emerged as the top two teams in the division and this four-game weekend set would take us into the All-Star break.
The Reds needed to plant their feet and not let the season get away. That’s what they did. They beat up Nolan Ryan in an 8-1 win on Friday. In the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, Cincinnati spotted Houston a 6-0 lead in the first inning. Soto came out of the bullpen and threw 8 2/3 innings of shutout baseball. The Reds came back and won 8-6. LaCoss won the nightcap 3-2.
Even though Cincinnati lost the Sunday finale, they had stopped the bleeding. They were 41-38 at the break, and within 4 ½ of Houston and LA, who were tied for the lead.
Getting swept four straight at home by mediocre San Francisco didn’t exactly create a run on playoff optimism in southwestern Ohio. But the always up-and-down Reds bounced back with eight wins in ten games. And they found their rhythm in August, going 18-10 and fighting the Dodgers to another split in a six-game home-and-home sequence.
By Labor Day, Cincinnati was 71-59 and firmly in the race. They were three back of frontrunning Houston. Los Angeles was nestled in between, a game off the pace. The race was on.
The Reds missed an opportunity when they lost four of seven in road trips to St. Louis and Chicago, both poor teams, and slipped five back. Cincinnati responded by sweeping Atlanta, pulling back within 2 1/2 games and welcoming Los Angeles back to Riverfront a weekend series.
The reliable Cincy offense fell silent at a bad time. They mustered only four hits in Friday’s 5-2 loss. They had a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning on Saturday. Soto was on the mound with two outs and a man aboard. He gave up a triple to tie the game and balked in the winning run. The Reds lost 3-2. Then they only got five hits in Sunday’s 3-1 loss.
That made the road trip to Los Angeles the following weekend even more must-win. And did the offense ever take a measure of revenge.
Cincinnati unloaded for seven runs in the second inning of Friday’s opener, including a grand slam from Bench. They won 10-7. The Reds got started in the first inning on Saturday, scoring seven more runs. This time it was done in bits and pieces, with Knight’s two-run double being the only extra-base hit. On Sunday, the Cincy offense waited until the 11th inning in a 2-2 game to unload. More small ball produced five runs, all on singles.
The sweep kept the Reds alive, with a record of 82-68, 3 ½ back. Now they had to go to Houston and keep it going.
But the bats again went quiet. Cincinnati wasted good outings from Seaver and Soto in consecutive 2-0 losses. An 8-5 win in the series finale kept them alive, but the schedule now worked against the Reds.
Cincinnati was 86-71, 3 ½ back of Houston, with LA in between at two games back. That’s a tough climb to make in a week in any circumstances. It’s even harder when there are two teams to catch. And it rises to nearly impossible when the two teams ahead of you are going to play head-to-head on the final weekend.
The Reds had to draw an inside straight and didn’t. They split a couple games with the Padres and were formally eliminated when the Astros and Dodgers began their final showdown on Friday night.
Cincinnati still finished with a record of 89-73, fifth-best in the National League and good enough for the second wild-card spot by the standards of today. Not bad for a franchise in the midst of transition.