The 1976 Cincinnati Reds came to spring training having found redemption the previous October. After World Series losses in 1970 and 1972 and an upset loss in the 1973 National League Championship Series, the Reds had gotten over the top in an epic seven-game World Series against the Boston Red Sox, a Series that ranks high on the list of the best ever. The offensive juggernaut known as the Big Red Machine was looking to build on a championship legacy securely established.
The Machine had a couple of big names deal with off-years in 1976. Bench would hit only .234 in 1976. Perez also saw his numbers dip. It makes you wonder how good they might have been otherwise. Because the rest of the Machine’s cogs were more than enough to pick up the slack.
Pete Rose was still going strong and hit .323, with 42 doubles that easily led the team and led the NL with 130 runs scored. George Foster was becoming one of the great power hitters in the National League and his 121 RBIs were tops in the NL. Ken Griffey Sr. delivered an on-base percentage of .401 and above all, second baseman Joe Morgan was an all-around dominating offensive force. Morgan’s .444 on-base percentage and .576 slugging percentage each led the league and he won the MVP for the second straight year.
When the All-Star Game was played at the old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, five Reds—Bench, Rose, Morgan, Concepion and Foster were voted in as starters.
Anderson never did have a dominating staff, the way teams like the A’s and Orioles did during this period. But Sparky continued to squeeze the most out of the arms he had. He made regular use of six starters, getting them all at least 20 starts. Nolan was the best of the group, winning 15 games and piling up 239 innings, but he was more first-among-equals rather than a true ace. Pat Zachry won 15 and Gullett won 11 in his twenty times to the post.
The bullpen was mostly a two-man show with Eastwick winning 11 games and saving 26 more, while Borbon worked over 120 innings with a 3.35 ERA.
Just like 1975, Cincinnati rounded into form slowly. They were 12-10 on May 6. A trip to Wrigley Field and a three-game sweep started a spurt that got the Reds to 24-16. They were two games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.
As a quick point of order for younger readers, the divisional format prior to 1994 had just an East and West. The Reds, along with the Houston Astros (an NL team until 2013) and Atlanta Braves joined the Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, and San Diego Padres in the West. Only first-place teams qualified for the postseason. And Los Angeles was coming to town for a four-game series over Memorial Day weekend.
Cincinnati took control of Friday night’s opener immediately. Morgan hit a three-run jack. Bench hit a solo blast. Zachry tossed a five-hit shutout in an easy 9-0 win.
Saturday afternoon offered more drama. Billingham struggled and the Reds trailed 5-3 going into the bottom of the ninth. Concepion and Geronimon opened the final frame with singles, giving some hope. A sac bunt moved the tying runs into scoring position. Rose grounded out. Down to their last chance, the Reds got a triple from Griffey to tie the game. Morgan knocked a single to center and the Reds had a thrilling 6-5 win.
The first game of a Sunday doubleheader was another good one. Concepion’s three hits helped Cincinnati get a 5-4 lead by the seventh inning. But this time, Borbon and Eastwick couldn’t hold the lead and it ended a 6-5 loss. But the Reds resumed control in the nightcap–Perez, Geronimo and Blll Plummer all homered. Spot starter Santo Alcala gave six good innings and the final was 7-2. The Reds were tied for first in the NL West.
Over the early part of summer, Cincinnati took five of eight from Pittsburgh. They grabbed another two wins at home from Los Angeles. They won a series in San Diego, who had lingered around the fringes of the race in the early months. The only downside was losing four of five games to the Philadelphia Phillies, who were on their way to dethroning the Pirates in the NL East. By the All-Star break, the Reds were 53-33 and had pushed out to a six-game lead over the Dodgers.
A strong 16-6 surge out of the break had the lead up to nine games by the first weekend in August. Cincinnati went west for a four-game series in L.A. The Reds had a chance to put the hammer down in the division race.
Norman tossed a complete game in Thursday night’s opener. Backed by three hits from Rose and a home run by Perez, it was enough for a 3-2 win. Friday’s game went to the ninth inning tied 3-3. Morgan homered. Foster, Bench, Concepion, and Rose all singled, wrapped around a Geronimo wall. Cincy had blown it open and won 7-4. They were assured of no worse than a split.
But a split wasn’t enough–the Reds were going for the kill shot. Zachry pitched eight brilliant innings on Saturday, Foster hit a three-rum bomb and Cincinnati won 4-1. Billingham was the hero of SUnday–he had two hits and an RBI. He pitched 8 ⅔ innings of great baseball and led 3-2. With two on and two out in the ninth, Eastwick slammed the door on the game–and, for all practical purposes, the 1976 NL West race.
Los Angeles did creep back to within eight games by Labor Day. But it never got closer. Cincinnati promptly re-extended their lead. When all was said and done, the Reds were 102-60–ten games better than the Dodgers and the best record in baseball.
Cincinnati met up with the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship Series. The Phillies had won 101 games and were the second-best team in baseball. They played the Reds competitively in the games individually, but Cincy consistently found a way to get the key hit or the big out. Games 2 & 3 in what was then a best-of-five LCS round were tight, but the Reds won both and swept their way into the World Series.
The New York Yankees were waiting in the World Series. It sounds strange to say today, but it was the Yankees who were the up-and-coming upstart, while the Reds were the grizzled veterans of October. New York had made it to the postseason for the first time since 1964 under the management of Billy Martin and they won a thrilling five-game ALCS over the Kansas City Royals on Chris Chambliss’ ninth-inning walkoff home run in the decisive fifth game.
Cincinnati again swept their way through. Game 2 was tied in the ninth inning before the Reds scraped across a run. Bench put his poor season behind him with a fantastic Series, hitting .429 and homering twice in the Game 4 clincher. The Big Red Machine was a champion again.