In the days when the National League was split into just East and West divisions with the winners advancing directly to LCS play, the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates enjoyed a lively postseason rivalry. They met four times in the 1970s to settle the NL pennant and the Reds won three of those. The rivalry renewed at the 1990 NLCS and once again, it was Cincinnati coming out on top.
You can read more about the regular season paths the Reds and Pirates took their respective division titles and about the key players who defined each team at the links below. This article will focus squarely on the games of the 1990 NLCS itself.
Homefield advantage was done by rotation rather than merit, so it was 91-win Cincinnati hosting 95-win Pittsburgh on a Thursday night at Riverfront Stadium. The Reds sent staff ace Jose Rijo to the mound. The Pirates, even though they had clinched their division with a few days to spare, chose not to open the series with Cy Young winner Doug Drabek. Instead it was Bob Walk who got the ball for the opener.
If you wanted to second-guess Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland for the decision, the Reds gave you reason right out of the gate. Barry Larkin led off the home half of the first with a walk, was bunted up and scored on a base hit by Hal Morris. Then Eric Davis and Paul O’Neill slashed consecutive doubles and it was quickly a 3-0 Cincy lead.
Walk settled down though and the Reds only got two hits the rest of the way. The Pirate lineup began chipping away at the lead in third. Mike LaValliere walked and Jose Lind picked him up with an RBI triple. Lind died on third though, after Rijo struck out Walk and Wally Backman. But one inning later, Pittsburgh tied it on a walk and home run by Sid Bream.
The Pirates threatened to take the lead in the sixth and they got Rijo out of the game. But LaValliere grounded into a bases-loaded double play to kill the threat. Even so, Cincinnati was doing nothing at the plate while Pittsburgh kept the momentum. In the seventh, Gary Redus blooped a one-out single, stole second and scored on an Andy Van Slyke double.
Cincinnati made some noise in the ninth against reliever Bob Patterson. With runners on first and second and one out, manager Lou Piniella called for a double steal. Billy Bates was thrown out at second. Chris Sabo struck out and Pittsburgh’s 4-3 road win was in the books.
Now the decision to keep Drabek in reserve looked inspired and the Reds had every reason to feel desperation when the teams returned to the field on late Friday afternoon. Pittsburgh threatened to turn up the heat early on lefty Tom Browning when they put runners on first and third and had their big guns coming to the plate. But Bobby Bonilla popped up, Barry Bonds struck out and the rally died.
The Reds again struck in the first inning and again it was Larkin working a leadoff walk. He promptly stole second and scored on a Herm Winningham single. O’Neill singled, and with runners on the corners then stole second himself. There was still no one out and Cincy’s own big gun in Eric Davis was at the plate.
But Drabek escaped without further damage. He struck out Davis. After an intentional walk, the Pirate ace induced Sabo to hit a one-hopper to the mound that turned into a force-out at home. A strikeout of Joe Oliver kept the score 1-0.
Pittsburgh kept threatening over the next two innings but kept failing to score. In the second inning, Browning picked Jeff King off of second base to get out of trouble. Redus was caught stealing in the third, ending that threat. Not until the fifth, when Lind homered down the left field line, did the Pirates finally tie it up 1-1.
O’Neill immediate answered for Cincinnati, with an RBI double in the bottom of the fifth. Drabek went the distance and didn’t allow any more runs. But the potent Reds bullpen, anchored by Rob Dibble and Randy Myers, locked down the final nine outs and preserved the 2-1 win.
Play resumed Monday afternoon in Pittsburgh and the Cincinnati bats awoke against Pirate lefty Zane Smith. With two outs in the second, Billy Hatcher homered. Pittsburgh countered in the home half of the fourth when doubles by Jay Bell and Carmelo Martinez were sandwiched around a base hit by Bonilla and a walk to Van Slyke. The game was tied 2-2 and the Pirates had runners on second and third with just one out.
An intentional walk brought up the bottom of the order though. Cincinnati’s Danny Jackson got a big strikeout of Lind, then got the pitcher to keep the score 2-2. And in the top of the fifth, the Reds again flexed some muscle. A Hatcher double and Larkin infield hit paved the way for infielder Mariano Duncan to hit a three-run blast.
Once again, the “Nasty Boys” bullpen of the Reds took on a big workload. Dibble came on in the sixth and retired all five batters have faced. The teams traded runs late before Myers closed out the 6-3 win.
The Reds had at least assured themselves of a return trip home and they sent Rijo to the mound on Tuesday night to try and seize complete command of this NLCS. He again matched up with Walk.
Pittsburgh struck quickly. Wally Backman led off the home half of the first with a double and scored on a consecutive productive outs. Walk worked easily through the first three innings, picking up where he’d left off at the end of Game 1.
In the fourth though, the Reds broke through. O’Neill homered. Davis and Morris hit consecutive singles and with the speedy Davis on third, a Sabo fly ball gave Cincy a 2-1 lead. The Pirates came right back in their half of the inning when Van Slyke led off with a single and scored on a two-out double from Bream.
The 2-2 score held until the seventh. Morris started the Cincinnati half of the inning with a base hit and Sabo followed with a home run for a 4-2 lead. Rijo pitched into the eighth before Bell led off with a home run. With the lead down to 4-3, it was time for the Nasty Boys again. Myers came on to face the heart of the Pittsburgh order.
The Pirates hit Myers, but were undone by their own mistake. Bonilla doubled, but tried to stretch it to a triple and was thrown out at third. It proved even more costly when Bonds followed with a single, but the scored stayed 4-3. Cincinnati got an insurance run in the ninth when Morris hit a leadoff double and came around. Dibble came on for the ninth and closed it out. The Reds were in complete command, with a 3-1 lead in games and two more at home if they needed them.
What the Pirates had was one more game at home and Doug Drabek ready to pitch. Even though Drabek was touched by a leadoff double from Larkin who quickly scored the game’s first run, the National League’s best pitcher got settled and his teammates wasted no time in striking back against Browning.
After Bell was hit by a pitch, Van Slyke tied the game with a triple and gave Pittsburgh the lead when he came home on a Bonds groundout. Bonds was part of another rally in the fourth when he walked, took third on a single and scored on a sac fly.
The 3-1 score held into the seventh and the Pirates threatened to open up the game when they put runners on second and third with one out. Rick Mahler, on in relief of Browning, got Bell to ground out and the runners stayed put. Power lefty Norm Charlton came out of the pen to face Van Slyke, got the big strikeout and Cincinnati stayed in the game.
It looked like Pittsburgh might regret the missed opportunity. Larkin drilled a two-out RBI double in the eighth to cut the lead to 3-2. In the ninth, O’Neill and Eric Davis led off the inning with singles and were bunted up to second and third. Patterson came on in relief of Drabek. After an intentional walk, he induced catcher Jeff Reed to hit a groundball to third base that turned into a 5-4-3 double play. The Pirates hung on and the series would return to Cincinnati.
A hungry crowd was out on Friday night at Riverfront, hoping for their first pennant since 1976. The Reds wasted no time giving them something to cheer about. Larkin beat out an infield hit, stole second and took third on a bad throw. A groundout by Davis scored the run. When Larkin again singled in the bottom of the third, Leyland went to his bullpen. Zane Smith was pulled for Ted Power.
Power kept it a 1-0 game until the fifth when Bonds walked and scored on a Martinez double to tie it up. Danny Jackson was pitching well for Cincinnati and the tension built in the 1-1 game. The Reds loaded the bases with one out in the sixth before Power struck out Duncan and escaped the jam.
In the bottom of the seventh, Reds’ infielder Ron Oester singled. Larkin’s bunt attempt failed and he popped up, but Hatcher followed with a single. Luis Quinones then delivered the biggest hit Cincinnati had seen since Joe Morgan’s blooper that won the 1975 World Series. Quinones’ single gave his team a 2-1 lead and it was time for the Nasty Boys.
There was a brief anxious moment in the ninth when Martinez launched a fly ball deep to right with a man aboard. But it didn’t have quite enough to get out and rightfielder Glenn Braggs made the play. Myers struck out Slaught and the party could start in Cincinnati.
Each team went on to successes that weren’t anticipated at the time. The Pirates had been a surprise team in the NL East and it was questioned if they could sustain that success. They answered that with two more division titles in 1991 and 1992. Meanwhile, the Reds went into the World Series as a heavy underdog to the Oakland A’s. Cincinnati answered that with the most shocking sweep in the history of the Fall Classic.