The 1980 Los Angeles Dodgers went through an up and down season that kept them in the race and their fans on the edge of their seats. It ended in a fitting way—after a surge to catch the Houston Astros, the Dodgers lost a one-game playoff that settled the NL West title.
Los Angeles had won successive National League pennants in 1977-78, but took a step back in 1979 when they struggled to a 79-83 finish. Tom Lasorda’s team was aggressive in the free agent market.
They signed Dave Goltz, a recent 20-game winner with the Twins and the Dodgers added closer Don Stanhouse, fresh off a trip to the World Series in Baltimore. In the end though, the big money newcomers flamed out and it was the Old Guard that simply bounced back and got the franchise back on track.
While Goltz struggled to 7-11 and a 4.31 ERA, veteran lefty Jerry Reuss went 18-6 with a 2.51 ERA. Another vet, Don Sutton posted a 13-5 mark and a sparkling 2.20 ERA. Burt Hooton, a reliable pitcher during the recent pennant years, went 14-8 with a 3.66 ERA. And young Bob Welch, in his second full season, delivered 14 more wins and a 3.29 ERA. All four core starters worked over 200 innings.
The bullpen lacked depth, but in an era when complete games were much more common, this wasn’t a fatal flaw. And Lasorda had a solid closer in Steve Howe and a reliable middle man in Bobby Castillo. When all was said and done, the Los Angeles staff was second in the National League in ERA.
Dodger Stadium is a big park that favors the pitching staff, and that makes the achievement of the Los Angeles offense even more impressive. They led the league in home runs. First baseman Steve Garvey, third baseman Ron Cey and leftfielder Dusty Baker combined for 81 home runs, while rightfielder Reggie Smith finished with a slugging percentage of .508.
Other offensive contributors included 35-year-old second baseman Davey Lopes, who could still run and swiped 23 bases. Three quality veterans came off the bench in outfielders Jay Johnstone and Rick Monday, along with catcher Joe Ferguson. All finished with on-base percentages between .353 and .372. And 24-year-old Pedro Guerrero, soon to be a big-time player, got nearly 200 at-bats and put up a .359 OBP/.497 slugging percentage.
Los Angeles’ offense wasn’t always patient, finishing below the league average in walks. But the power was enough to place them sixth in the 12-team National League in runs scored and combined with the pitching staff that was more than enough to compete.
The season picked up where 1979 had ended, and that was playing poorly. The Dodgers lost six of seven to the Astros, the lowlight of a 3-7 start. Then Los Angeles turned around and won ten in a row. Which was immediately followed by losing five of six, which was subsequently followed by a 10-1 run.
By Memorial Day, the Dodgers had more ups and downs under their belt than most teams would have in a season. But they were in first place at 25-15. Cincinnati, who won the NL West in ’79, was three games back. Houston and San Diego were each 3 ½ games out.
The early summer was a little more stable, but there was still a 2-6 stretch in early June and the Dodgers slipped as many as three games back. They got on a little four-game win streak right before the All-Star break. The midseason festivities were held in Los Angeles this season and the Dodgers were in a virtual tie for first with the Astros. The Reds were 4 ½ out and the Padres had fallen off the map.
After two quick wins at home over Houston to start the second half, Los Angeles hit the skids hard again, dropping 11 of 16. They were 3 ½ games out and after treading water until August 19, got on their biggest hot streak of this streaky season. They ripped off 17 wins in 20 games, including a 7-0 mark against a good Montreal Expos team that fought to the final weekend in the NL East.
Los Angeles rolled into Labor Day back on top of the NL West, two games ahead of Houston and plus-five on Cincinnati. The Dodgers faced both rivals the week after the holiday. They gave away the lead with two straight losses in Houston, but responded with a three-game sweep in Cincinnati. Los Angeles was back in a first-place tie, but at least the race seemed to be finally narrowing to just two teams.
At least until the following week. The Dodgers hosted the Reds, who returned the favor by coming into LA and delivering a road sweep. Los Angeles went 2-5 on the week. The good news was they were only a game back Houston, while Cincinnati had new life, within 3 ½ games of the lead.
Los Angeles then failed to take advantage of a soft schedule week, where they played seven games against the also-ran Braves, Giants and Padres. The Dodgers only went 3-4, slipping two games back of Houston. The Reds were still lurking at 3 ½ out when the final week began.
A series victory over San Francisco, two out of three, eliminated Cincinnati, because the final weekend saw the Dodgers and Astros going head-to-head. But Houston extended the lead to three games. If there was a tie for first, the one-game playoff would be in Los Angeles, so the stakes were very simple for the Dodgers—they had to win four straight home games over Houston, the three regular season games to tie and the playoff to finish the job.
Los Angeles was two outs from elimination on Friday night, trailing 2-1 and seemingly ready to waste a clutch outing from Sutton. With one out, Monday singled and then moved up on an error. With two outs, Cey was the last hope. He singled to tie the game and in the 10th inning, Ferguson homered to win it.
The Dodgers were also saved in that game by some clutch relief work from a Mexican kid who would not pitch enough innings in 1980 for it to qualify as his rookie year. Fernando Valenzuela tossed a couple shutout innings and laid the groundwork for what would be a dynamic rookie campaign and Cy Young season in 1981.
Reuss and Nolan Ryan hooked up in another pitcher’s duel on Saturday and Reuss got the better of it, winning 2-1 and extending the race one more day. On Sunday afternoon, Hooton got the ball and struggled. Los Angeles trailed 3-0 after four innings. Castillo, Valenzuela and Howe held down the fort and the Dodgers chipped back to within 3-2 in the eighth, but time was running out.
Again, they came back and again Cey was a hero. After Garvey reached on an error, Cey homered. The Astros put the tying run on third in the ninth, but Howe preserved the 4-3 win. This miracle push still had life and it would come down to one game on Monday afternoon.
The mistakes off the offseason finally bit the Dodgers here. Goltz was the only one left who could pitch and he had nothing, digging a quick 4-0 hole and this time there was no comeback. Los Angeles lost 7-1 and the season was over.
It was still a bounceback year for the 1980 Los Angeles Dodgers, as the organization showed its resiliency after 1979 and these individual players showed their toughness throughout the roller coaster ride of a season. And one year later that all paid off, when the Dodgers won the World Series.