The Big Red Machine was the National League’s pre-eminent team in the 1970s, including World Series titles in 1975 and 1976. In ’77, they took a step back and came up short of the postseason. The 1978 Cincinnati Reds were another good team, but when they too came up short, the organization changed course and started a new era.
Cincinnati was led by their offense in 1978 and that offense was keyed by the greatness of George Foster. The leftfielder followed up his MVP campaign of 1977 by hitting 40 home runs and driving in 120 runs. Pete Rose was 37-years-old, but the third baseman could still produce. Rose batted .302 and tied a National League record with a 44-game hitting streak in the summer of ’78.
The great Johnny Bench was still behind the plate and still producing, hitting 23 homers. Shortstop Dave Concepion hit .301. Ken Griffey Senior played rightfield and while he didn’t have a vintage year, his .344 on-base percentage and .417 slugging percentage were still respectable. The right side of the infield didn’t have much power, but Dan Driessen and Joe Morgan each had OBPs on the high side of .340.
It added up to an offense that finished second in the National League in runs scored. But the Reds were held back by their pitching staff. Tom Seaver won 16 games with a 2.88 ERA and he went to the mound 36 times in 1978. But after Tom Terrific, Cincy pitching was thin.
Fred Norman was respectable, but his 3.70 ERA wasn’t suitable for a #2 starter on a team that had World Series aspirations. Norman was the only starter besides Seaver to go the post 30-plus times. Paul Moskau and Bill Bonham were similarly manageable, but not great.
The spotty rotation had been something that manager Sparky Anderson was able to maneuver around during the championship years. But that was when the bullpen was deep. Now it was similar to the rotation—one good arm followed by mediocrity. Doug Bair saved 28 games with a 1.97 ERA, but everyone after him, from Tom Hume to Manny Sarmiento to Pedro Borbon to Dave Tomlin, struggled through mediocre seasons.
Cincinnati opened the year with a four-game sweep of the mediocre Houston Astros, averaging nearly seven runs a game in the process. It kickstarted a strong opening push to the season that included Rose getting his 3,000th career hit in early May. By Memorial Day, the Reds were 28-18 and squarely in the middle of the race for the old NL West.
Prior to the realignment of 1994, the Reds and Braves were in the NL West. The alignment may have confounded the laws of geography, but it did create a great rivalry between Cincinnati and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won this division in 1977 and were right in the midst of the race again in ’78. The San Francisco Giants were in first place. Houston and the San Diego Padres rounded out the division and only the winner would advance, going directly to the National League Championship Series.
The Reds faced their first real test of the pennant race in late June and early July, with a 21-game stretch that was heavy on the Dodgers and Giants with a little bit of Astros sprinkled in. The test did not go well and Cincy lost 12 of the 21 games. Their potent offense failed them, being shut out four times in this stretch and averaging only 3.4 runs per game (compared to 4.55 in all other games).
At the All-Star break they were 49-37 and in third place, but still within three games of the lead. The start to the second half went much better. Playing against NL East teams, the Reds went 16-9, including taking five of seven games from eventual NL East champ Philadelphia. Cincinnati was in a dead heat with San Francisco, with Los Angeles now chasing at 2 ½ games back.
But an 11-game road trip to San Diego and Chicago, both mediocre teams, along with a contending one in Pittsburgh, resulted in a 4-7 record. The Reds again slipped three games off the pace. They needed to get back on their feet and an eight-game homestand against the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates appeared just what the doctor ordered. St. Louis, like Chicago, was not particularly good in 1978.
The homestand started on Monday, August 21 and Bonham was rocked by the Cardinal offense in a 14-9 loss. Seaver was brilliant the next night and handed a 4-0 lead over to the bullpen in the ninth. Hume coughed it up and the Cards tied the game. Even though the Reds won 5-4 in 11, the victory didn’t inspire confidence.
And it would be their last win of the homestand. Cincinnati lost the finale against St. Louis. The Reds lost the opener to Chicago 5-2, mustering only five hits. The Cincy bullpen blew another game the next night, being given a 4-2 lead in the eighth and losing 8-6. Even Seaver struggled in the finale, although with the Reds only getting four hits in the 7-1 loss, it really didn’t matter.
The offensive woes continued against the Pirates. Cincinnati got just six hits and scored only one run in the two games combined, losing both. By the time this homestand was over, the Reds were seven games out of first place.
They never got back into serious contention. Even though San Francisco also fell hard, Los Angeles pulled away and had the division clinched before the final week began. The Reds swept the Dodgers in that final week and also swept the Braves to finish within 2 ½ games in the final standings. But there was no pennant race drama.
It was still a 92-win season and by the standards of today, Cincinnati would have easily been a playoff team. In fact, they were equal to or better than division champions from Philadelphia and Kansas City.
But the changes came. Rose left via free agency and went to the Phillies. Anderson was fired and resumed his Hall of Fame managerial career in Detroit. For the next three years, it didn’t seem to matter much. Cincinnati bounced back with a surprise division title in 1979. They were a contender in 1980. In 1981, they had the best record in baseball, although the bizarre strike-year format left them out of the playoffs. It wasn’t until 1982 that the Reds collapsed and began a rebuild.
But with Rose and Anderson joining Tony Perez as Big Red Machine cogs that moved on, 1978 was still a seminal moment in the decline of one of the 1970s great baseball teams.