The Houston Astros have won the American League pennant for the first time and, in so doing, became the first team to win pennants in both leagues. Their first resulted in a World Series sweep at the hands of the White Sox in 2005.
Before that, the Astros were a team that had several runs at the postseason. In the early 1980s, a pitching-rich Houston team featuring Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Bob Knepper and Joe Niekro made the postseason two years in a row, the second time facing the Los Angeles Dodgers in a series that never should have happened.
The first reason that series shouldn’t have happened was, of course, the strike. MLB added a round of playoffs that year that have been retroactively given the modern term “division series,” but what they actually were was an attempt to reconcile the fact that the season had been interrupted about a third of the way through. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn wanted to give a reward, of sorts, to the teams that had been in first place when the strike happened.
And so it was decided that the season would be divided into “first half” and “second half,” and the winner of each “half” in each division would play in an “East Division playoff” and “West Division playoff” — or so they were termed by sportswriters of the time.
I think you can see the issue with this, and in fact, exactly what everyone feared was going to happen, happened. The Cardinals had the best overall record in the N.L. East, but did not win either half, so they sat home in October. Ditto for the Reds in the N.L. West. In fact, the Cubs, who had one of the worst years in franchise history in 1981, were only three games out of the N.L. East second-half lead with 10 games to go. Now that would have been embarrassing, having a Cubs team 20+ games under .500 in the postseason. The Cubs cooperated by losing seven of their last 10 and the Expos won the second half — by half a game over the Cardinals. There’s more about that alleged “pennant race” in this article I wrote here in 2013.
What they should have done was put the second-half winner against the overall winner, and if those teams happened to be the same, then you put that team against the first-half “winner,” and that’s in quotes because obviously, when that season began no one knew there would be a first half and second half.
What all that did is result in the N.L. playoffs featuring the teams with the third-best and fifth-best overall records meet in the West and the teams with the fourth-best and sixth best overall records meet in the East, while the top two teams sat home. And the A.L. postseason wasn’t much better, although the two top teams, the Athletics and Brewers, did get in. The Royals managed the best record in the West in the second half at 30-23, but their awful 20-30 mark in the first half got them in the playoffs with a sub-.500 record which was the ninth-best overall record in the American League. And the Yankees, who had the third-best overall record in the A.L. East, got in ahead of the second-place Tigers to face the division-best Brewers.
Anyway, the Astros and Dodgers met in a best-of-five series played in a 2-3 format, with home field (and the last three games) given to the Dodgers because they had won the season series from Houston.
The Astros, behind solid pitching from Ryan and Niekro, won the first two games at the Astrodome and needed just one more win to move on to the NLCS. But Dodgers pitching dominated the three games at Dodger Stadium and Houston scored just two runs in those three games. Here’s the unusual last out of the clinching game:
Now there’s something you don’t see anymore — fans running onto the field after a postseason series win. I cannot imagine that happening today; this was about the last time I can recall it happening.
The Dodgers went on to face the Montreal Expos in the NLCS, and the Expos were one out away from going to the bottom of the ninth in the last game tied when Rick Monday homered off Steve Rogers. That home run sent the Dodgers to the World Series, which they won over the Yankees. And the Expos franchise, now in Washington, still hasn’t made it to a World Series, as you well know.
The Dodgers and Astros played against each other as division rivals in the National League West from 1969 through 1993. Over that span the Dodgers were in the postseason seven times and the Astros three. Now they’ll face each other with much higher stakes than that long-ago “divisional playoff.”