The calendar has arrived at Labor Day weekend and signaled the baseball stretch drive has begun. “Stretch drive” has a little different connotation in 2020 when it doubles as the midway point and more than half the league will make the postseason. But when September arrived as the culmination of a 162-game grind and only the best would play on, it was unique indeed. The Notebook Nine looks back at the best pennant races of the 1980s, an era where each league was split into just an East and West division and the winners went straight to the League Championship Series…
1)1987 Tigers-Blue Jays
Detroit and Toronto were able to separate themselves from an AL East race that included feisty Milwaukee and fading New York. The Tigers and Blue Jays played seven head-to-head games in the final ten days. Toronto won the first three at home and took a one-run lead into the ninth inning in the series finale. Detroit rallied and won that game. The Blue Jays never won again the rest of the year. The Tigers rallied, with a three-game sweep to close the year and win the division.
Milwaukee was aiming for a breakthrough AL East crown after four years of slowly building steam. When the Brewers held a three-game lead with four to play, it looked secure. But the Orioles were playing for their retiring manager Earl Weaver and the Birds had one hole card left—a four-game set with Milwaukee at old Memorial Stadium to end the season. With the house rocking, Baltimore won the first three by a combined score of 26-7. In the winner-take-all finale, Robin Yount restored order for the Brewers with two home runs and a triple to seal his MVP campaign and a Milwaukee pennant.
3 & 4) 1980 Phillies-Expos & Astros-Dodgers
Both National League races came down to head-to-head games on the final weekend. Great drama was anticipated in Montreal, where the Phils and Expos were in a dead heat and playing a de facto best two-of-three. Less drama was expected in Los Angeles, where the Astros needed just one win in three tries against the Dodgers to wrap it up.
There turned out to be plenty of drama in both places. Philadelphia won a tight game on Friday night. So did Los Angeles. On Saturday, Montreal looked ready to push the race to the last day until the Phils scored the tying run in the ninth. In extra innings, Mike Schmidt punctuated an MVP year with a game-winning home run.
The Dodgers kept staving off elimination, winning Saturday and then rallying late to win again on Sunday. Houston and Los Angeles would have to play a one-game playoff in Dodger Stadium on Monday. Alas, LA ran out of pitching and had to turn to fading Dave Goltz. Houston got a gem from knuckleballer Joe Niekro and finally clinched, 7-1.
The Braves, managed by Joe Torre and led by MVP centerfielder Dale Murphy were running neck-and-neck with the defending World Series champion Dodgers. The Giants, left for dead at the start of September came roaring back. On the final weekend, Los Angeles was in San Francisco head-to-head, while Atlanta played out in San Diego. The Dodgers won on Friday night and finally eliminated the Giants. But on Saturday, the tables turned. With the race looking poised to go to Sunday, Joe Morgan hit a three-run shot to break hearts in Los Angeles and hand the NL West to Atlanta.
The Mets opened the season as defending champs and heavy favorites. But with their pitching rotation mangled by injuries, the Cardinals took advantage and jumped out to a big lead in the summer. New York came roaring back and was closing fast when St. Louis came to old Shea Stadium in September. On the verge of seeing their lead shrunk to a half-game, the Cardinals rallied against Met closer Roger McDowell. Terry Pendleton hit a big home run. St. Louis survived. New York didn’t bounce back and the Cardinals were able to wrap it up before the teams rematched in Busch Stadium.
7-8-9): The 1985 Trifecta
None of these races individually were the best of the decade, but they were all really good and were all clinched on the season’s penultimate day. Collectively, they made 1985 one of the most electric Septembers ever.
Cards-Mets: New York ace Dwight Gooden was having one of the great pitching seasons of all-time. St. Louis lefty John Tudor was lights out himself. The two aces took turns throwing gems and the tension built. New York won four of the six head-to-head games, but St. Louis was more consistent and finally clinched.
Royals-Angels: Kansas City looked dead and buried in mid-summer. Then the Royals came on strong and chased down California. In the AL West’s decisive moment, KC took three of four games in a head-to-head series that opened the final week of play and then clinched on the weekend.
Blue Jays-Yankees: Toronto had seemed to be pulling away several times during a tumultuous September in New York that had Billy Martin fighting with starting pitcher Ed Whitson in a hotel bar. But the Yankees were still lurking. The Blue Jay lead was three games with three to play—and those would be head-to-head against the men in Pinstripes. Three outs from clinching on Friday night, Toronto coughed up a lead and lost. It could have been the stuff collapses are made of, but the Blue Jays calmly rebounded and clinched their first AL East crown on Saturday.