1981 was the foreshadowing of a new era in baseball, with the introduction of the Division Series. The circumstances weren’t ideal—a players’ strike from mid-June to mid-August pushed MLB to the idea of declaring the teams in first place at the strike to be in the playoffs, where they would then play the teams that won “the second half” after starting from scratch. The 1981 NLDS gave baseball good reasons to like the idea, with both series going the full five games.
The Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers were leading the East & West at the strike (there was no Central Division until the realignment of 1994). The Montreal Expos and Houston Astros won the respective second halves. You can read more about all four teams regular season paths, the key players and decisive moments in their push to October at the links below. This article will focus on going day-by-day through the Division Series.
The series opened in Houston & Montreal for the first two games, and then went to Los Angeles and Philly for the balance of the set.
Los Angeles-Houston: Fernando Valenzuela, the 20-year-old Cy Young winner took the mound for the Dodgers, against the veteran Nolan Ryan and neither pitcher disappointed. No one even threatened until the bottom of the sixth. With two outs, the Astros got a single from Terry Puhl, a walk by Phil Garner and an RBI base hit from Tony Scott for a 1-0 lead. But the Dodgers immediately countered in the seventh with Steve Garvey’s two-out solo home run to tie it.
Houston missed a chance in their own half of the seventh when Cesar Cedeno doubled and stole third to begin the frame. Two flyball outs were too short to get the run home and Fernando escaped.
Valenzuela was pinch-hit for in the eighth. The move made sense—it was to lead off the inning and the player off the bench was Jay Johnstone, a good hitter even before he made his 1989 cameo appearance in The Naked Gun. But it didn’t produce a run, and Los Angeles turned to 24-year-old Dave Stewart to continue the game.
Stewart got the first two outs, but light-hitting Craig Reynolds singled. The Astros weren’t a team noted for home runs in the deep expanse of the Astrodome, but they got on here—Alan Ashby homered and Houston took the opener 3-1.
Philadelphia-Montreal: It was a battle of aces with the Phillies’ sending their future Hall of Fame lefty Steve Carlton to the mound. The Expos had their own #1, Steve Rogers, ready to go. Montreal got to Carlton immediately with a first-inning single from Warren Cromartie. After Jerry White hit into a force out, he stole second, and scored on a hit by Gary Carter, a future Hall of Famer himself.
The Phils quickly tied it in the second on a home run by Keith Moreland, but the Expos peppered Carlton again the second, with consecutive doubles from Tim Wallach and Chris Speier. Wallach had the chance to do more damage in the third when he came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out, but he popped out and Carlton escaped with the score still 2-1.
Montreal just kept coming in the fourth. Speier drew a walk, was bunted over by Rogers and scored on a double by Cromartie. In the fifth, they had a chance to add to the lead when Andre Dawson led off with a triple. But Carlton got Carter and Larry Parrish, escaped the inning and it was still 3-1.
The missed chances might have haunted Montreal, given Carlton finally settled down and the Expos didn’t threaten again. But Rogers was locked in.
Not until two outs in the ninth, when Moreland and George Vuckovich each singled, did the pitcher finally lose it. He was lifted for the talented young closer in Jeff Reardon, who got Manny Trillo to line out to left. It was another 3-1 final, again going to the home team.
Los Angeles-Houston: The names changed on the mound, with two veterans, Jerry Reuss for the Dodgers and Joe Niekro for the Astros. But the results didn’t change. The pitchers kept dominating. Nothing even resembling a threat happened until the seventh, when LA’s Davey Lopes doubled to lead off and was bunted to third. But Niekro got Dusty Baker and Garvey to ground out, and the game went to extra innings scoreless.
It went to the 11th inning and the Dodgers again went to Stewart. By the end of the decade, Stewart would be renowned as one of baseball’s great big-game pitchers. Right now, he was still learning, and Garner and Scott each touched him for singles and there were runners on the corners.
Veteran Terry Forster was summoned to create a lefty-lefty matchup with Jose Cruz. Forster got Cruz on a fly ball too short to pick up the run. Los Angeles manager Tom Lasorda again made a pitching change, calling in Tom Niedenfuer to deal with the right-handed Art Howe.
Niedenfuer got a strike out and the Dodgers were poised to escape. But Denny Walling—a lefty hitter, with no response move left for Lasorda—singled to right and Houston was one win from the NL West title.
Philadelphia-Montreal: The Expos had a deep rotation in 1981 and Bill Gullickson had an even better ERA than Rogers when he took the mound for Game 2. The Phils’ #2 was Dick Ruthven, who had a good career, but ’81 was a rougher year for him.
Montreal capitalized on an error by Mike Schmidt and the pesky Speier drove in an unearned run in the second inning. In the third, Cromartie doubled, Carter homered and the Expos had an early 3-0 lead.
Gullickson picked up where Rogers left off and dominated. Not until the eighth did the Phils start to mount a threat. With two outs, Lonnie Smith doubled and scored on a single by Pete Rose. Bake McBride doubled, and with runners on second and third, Expo fans had reason to be nervous.
Reardon was again summoned. After intentionally walking Schmidt—the MVP third baseman was so feared that it was worth putting him aboard as the lead run—Reardon got Gary Matthews to pop out. The ninth went without incident and it was another 3-1 final.
Both of the home teams, Montreal and Houston, now needed just one road victory in three tries to triumph over the teams that had, for the most part, set the pace in these divisions starting in the late 1970s.
Houston-Los Angeles: The Dodgers played like a desperate team in front of their home fans and wasted little time getting after Astro lefty Bob Knepper. Lopes walked and was bunted up to start the game. Baker doubled the run in, and then Garvey unloaded with a home run. It was 3-0 and that was all Burt Hooton needed.
Houston got a solo shot from Art Howe in the third, but never scored again. Knepper settled in, but in the eighth, Los Angeles broke it open with four singles that produced three wins. The series had its first drama-free ending as the Dodgers stayed alive 6-1.
Montreal-Philadelphia: The Expos looked ready to continue their momentum when they scored first, in the second inning off Larry Christenson. Once again, the normally light-hitting Speier came through, with an RBI single that followed a double by Carter. But in the bottom of the inning, the Phils began to awaken.
Matthews and Moreland started with singles off of Ray Burris. Trillo tied it with a one-out single, and a throwing error on Dawson brought in a second run. The game settled in and went to the sixth still at 2-1 Philadelphia. The Phils then got some breathing room.
Moreland singled, after which a bunt and intentional walk ended Burris’ day. Montreal went to veteran lefthander Bill Lee, once a cornerstone of the rotation for the 1975 Boston Red Sox. Lee couldn’t get Vuckovich in the lefty-lefty matchup, as a single made it 3-1. Rose tacked on another base hit for a 4-1 lead.
Montreal threatened in the seventh, getting two on with one out against Sparky Lyle, a former Cy Young winner for the New York Yankees, but now nearing the end of his career. Lyle still had some veteran moxie and he got a double play ball to escape the inning
Schmidt doubled in the bottom of the seventh off Elias Sosa and it started a two-run inning that put the game out of reach. Montreal got a run in the eighth, but never made it interesting in a 6-2 final.
Houston-Los Angeles: Valenzuela was back on three days’ rest. The Astros, with breathing room, went to their #4 starter Vern Ruhle, although we should note that the Houston rotation was deep and Ruhle, while not having the career of a Ryan or Niekro, was at or close to their level in 1981. And he pitched like it matching Fernando with goose eggs for four innings.
Los Angeles finally broke through in the fifth, with Pedro Guerrero hit a two-out homer. It stayed 1-0 into the seventh when Garvey singled, was bunted up and scored on another big two-out hit, this one a single from Bill Russell.
Houston made a little noise in the ninth, when Puhl doubled. With two outs, Scott kept the game alive with a single that got the Astros a run. But Jose Cruz fouled out. This series was going to a Game 5.
Montreal-Philadelphia: In an NLDS round that produced a lot of good games, but mostly pitchers’ duels. Game 4 of the Expos-Phillies was the best back-and-forth game of this round, a great matchup on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Philly.
The Phils got after Scott Sanderson quickly, doing everything after two outs in the first inning. McBride singled and Schmidt homered for a 2-zip lead. Philadelphia got two more in the third. After Rose singled and Schmidt walked, a double play grounder appeared ready to get Sanderson out of it. But second baseman Jerry Manuel didn’t handle the exchange and while he got one out at first, there were runners on second and third. Moreland, never a great player in his career, but having a great series, singled with two outs and it was 4-0.
Montreal began coming back off Dickie Noles in the fourth when Carter homered. When two walks followed, Philly manager Dallas Green quickly went to his bullpen and Warren Brusstar kept it 4-1. Speier made things happen in the fifth, hitting a leadoff double and scoring a sac fly from White.
The Expos pulled even in the sixth. Parrish singled and then Speier—who else—singled with two outs. John Milner came on to pinch-hit and cut the lead to 4-3 with a base hit. Lyle came out of the bullpen, but another pinch-hit single, this one by Wallace Johnson, tied the game 4-4.
Philadelphia got the lead back in the sixth. Montreal was already on their fourth pitcher, Woodie Fryman, who had been brilliant all year long. But Matthews got Fryman for a solo home run. Montreal immediately tied it when White drew a walk off Ron Reed and scored on a double from Carter.
The Phils looked ready to get the lead right back in the seventh with a runner on third, one out and Schmidt at the plate. But Reardon came out of the pen and got Schmidt to pop out.
Reardon stayed in, while Phils’ closer Tug McGraw came on in the eighth. McGraw worked three scoreless innings and it was still 5-5 in the bottom of the 10th. Reardon had worked 2.2 IP of scoreless ball himself when the Vuckovich came to the plate. This was too much to ask, and Vuckovich lined a home run into the rightfield seats and with the 6-5 win, another Game 5 on Sunday would go down.
Major league baseball had been playing pre-World Series playoff rounds since 1969 in a best-of-five format and no team had ever lost the first two and come back to win. Both the Phillies and Dodgers—along with the Milwaukee Brewers who would attempt the same thing on Sunday in the 1981 ALDS—had the chance.
Houston-Los Angeles: Nolan Ryan had the best year of his career in 1981 and it was left to him to try and save the Astros, with Reuss pitching for the Dodgers. It was another pitchers’ duel—Ryan escaped a jam in the third when he got Baker to pop out with one out and Lopes on third-but the game went to the sixth inning scoreless.
Los Angeles broke through when Baker drew a one-out walk and Garvey singled, setting up runners on the corners. With two outs, Rick Monday singled for the game’s first run. It was all Reuss was going to need, but the Dodgers got more. Mike Scioscia singled in another run, and then an error brought in a third run.
The Houston bats, never very good to begin with, were completely silence and they never put together anything that could be called a serious threat. Garvey tripled in an insurance run in the seventh and with their 4-0 win, Los Angeles had made history.
Montreal-Philadelphia: It was a Rogers-Carlton matchup. Over the scope of their careers, there was no question that Carlton was the vastly superior pitcher, but in the specific year of 1981, it was much closer and this was Rogers’ moment.
In the top of the fourth, after a leadoff single by Parrish and walks by Wallach and Manuel, Rogers came to the plate with one out. It was Carlton’s chance to get a punch-out and escape. But Rogers slapped a single back through the middle it was 2-0.
That was all Rogers was going to need, as he put his team on his back. In the sixth, the Expos added another run to make it 3-0. The Phils mounted their one threat in the bottom of that inning, with two on one out and Schmidt at the plate.
Rogers got the MVP to hit into a double play ball. It was all over but the shouting. Montreal turned back Philadelphia’s bid at history and with the 3-0 win, the Expos were NL East champs for the first time.
1981 DIVISION SERIES MVPS
Major league baseball has never given an official Division Series MVP award, either then or after this round was permanently instituted in the realignment of 1994. It’s an omission I think should be rectified, and that’s what we’ll do here.
Let’s start with the easy one—Steve Rogers would have to be the choice for Montreal. The Expos ace won two games against the best starting pitcher of his generation in Carlton, including the decisive game on the road, and got Game 5’s biggest hit to boot.
There’s three worthwhile candidates for the Dodgers. Garvey went 7-for-19 and homered twice, an in a series that was starving for offense that certainly stands out. But it seems to me that since Houston only scored six runs in five games and Los Angele starters worked deep into games, perhaps we should look at the starting rotation.
That leads us Valenzuela and Reuss. Fernando worked 17 innings, allowed just one run and won Game 4. But Reuss was even better—18 innings, no runs and a shutout against Ryan in the decisive Game 5. I’d take Reuss for this honor.
AFTERMATH FOR THE VANQUISHED
Houston fell off the radar following the collapse of 1981, went into rebuilding mode and didn’t return to contention until they won the NL West again five years later. Philadelphia continued to contend, and returned to the World Series in 1983, though they never won it all again until 2008.
AFTERMATH FOR THE VICTORS
Los Angeles and Montreal continued the five-game fun in the 1981 NLCS, and the Dodgers continued the comeback pattern. They trailed 2-1 in games and were on the road in Montreal for the final two games. Both games were tied in the eighth inning, and a big home run was the difference each time.
Garvey went deep in the eighth inning of Game 4 to break that one open. Rick Monday’s shot in Game 5 was even bigger—it broke a 1-1 tie with two outs in the top of the ninth and won the pennant.
The Dodgers met the New York Yankees in the World Series, and it was one more round of comebacks for Lasorda’s Dodgers. They lost the first two games in the Bronx, and then never lost again. Three straight one-run wins followed at home, and then Los Angeles blew out New York in Yankee Stadium to seal a title in Game 6.