John McClain: A personal look back at the Astros-Phillies 1980 NLCS

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Murphy/AP/Shutterstock (6607053a) Jose Cruz of the Houston Astros sits alone in the dugout as fans stand quietly in the stands after the Astros lost to the Philadelphia Phillies, 8-7 in ten innings in the final game of the NL playoffs, Houston, Tex Phillies vs Astros NL Playoffs 1980, Houston, USA

John McClain: A personal look back at the Astros-Phillies 1980 NLCS

The Astros playing the Phillies in the World Series brought back a flood of memories about the first overwhelming disappointment in franchise history.

The 1980 National League Championship Series between the Astros and Phillies was acknowledged as one of the most exciting in playoff history because the last four games were decided in extra innings.

To set up this exciting, dramatic, edge-of-your-seat series, it’s time for a Houston history lesson.

Major League Baseball played a five-game format to determine what teams advanced to the World Series. The Astros and Phillies waited until the last day of their seasons to clinch division titles and advance to the NLCS.

The Astros needed to win one of their last three games at Dodger Stadium to secure the NL East title but lost all three. That set up a one-game playoff against the Dodgers. Behind knuckleball pitcher Joe Niekro, the Astros won 7-1 to reach the next round.

The Phillies were 57-53 in mid-August, and, much like this year’s team, got hot over the last part of the season to make the playoffs. They won six of their last seven to finish 91-71.

The NLCS featured managers Bill Virdon vs. Dallas Green and players who would become managers – Bruce Bochy and Art Howe for the Astros and Pete Rose, Larry Bowa and Bob Boone for the Phillies. FYI: Boone’s son, Yankees manager Aaron Boone, was just eliminated from the playoffs by the Astros.

Players in the NLCS who would be voted into the Hall of Fame were pitcher Nolan Ryan and Joe Morgan for the Astros and first baseman Pete Rose, third baseman Mike Schmidt and pitcher Steve Carlton for the Phillies.

Like the 2022 Astros, Houston had an outstanding pitching staff that season led by Ryan, Niekro, J.R. Richard, Ken Forsch, Vern Rhule, Joe Sambito, Dave Smith, Joaquin Andujar and Frank LaCorte.

Unfortunately, Richard suffered a season-ending stroke in July. His loss took a huge bite out of the Astros’ staff.

The Astros, born in 1962, were trying to reach their first World Series. The Phillies clinched their first pennant since 1950 and were trying to win their first World Series since 1915.

Even the NLCS broadcasters were big time. Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell and Don Drysdale did the national television broadcast. Jack Buck and Jerry Coleman handled national radio. Locally, the Astros had Gene Elson, Larry Dierker and Dewayne Staats.

The Phillies’ radio team had Harry Kalas, a former member of the Astros’ broadcast team whose son, Todd, does play-by-play for them, Tim McCarver, Andy Musser and Richie Ashburn.

The broadcast crew covered a playoff series to remember.

After defeating the Dodgers, the Astros left immediately for Philadelphia, where they lost the first game 3-1 at Veterans Stadium. Carlton outdueled Forsch to give the Phillies a 1-0 lead.

The Astros rebounded to win the second game 7-4 in 10 innings at The Vet, as the Phillies’ previous home was called. Terry Puhl had three hits and Jose Cruz two. Dave Bergman’s two-run triple in the 10th cemented the victory and evened the series.

In the third game, a brilliant pitching performance by Niekro ignited the Astros to a 1-0, 11-inning victory before a sellout crowd or 44,443 in the Astrodome. Niekro pitched 10 scoreless innings before Smith came out of the bullpen in the 11th. He put two on with two outs but escaped the jam.

The Astros won in the bottom of the 11th when Morgan led off with a triple against reliever Tug McGraw. Pinch runner Rafael Landestoy scored on Denny Walling’s sacrifice fly, sending Houston fans into a frenzy because the Astros had a 2-1 lead and were one game from reaching their first World Series.

Back in the Astrodome, the Phillies were one game from elimination. Rose scored the go-ahead run in the 10th when he ran over Bochy, the backup catcher who would win three World Series as the Giants’ manager and would come out of retirement this week to manage the Rangers, the Astros’ bitter rival. Greg Luzinski’s double off Sambito drove in Rose. McGraw got the Astros three up and three down to secure the 5-3 victory that evened the series.

Interestingly, the University of Houston was hosting Texas A&M in a game scheduled after the Astros and Phillies. Rather than move the game to Rice Stadium or Kyle Field, they waited for the Astros and Phillies to finish. The Cougars and Aggies didn’t kick off until 11:33 p.m. When the game ended at 2:14 a.m., the Cougars had earned a 17-13 victory.

The next day, Oct. 12, the Astros and Phillies played to decide which team went to the World Series to play Kansas City.

Astros fans were confident because they had Ryan on the mound against Marty Bystrom, a 22-year-old rookie who was 5-0 with a 1.50 record during the season. He was one of six Philadelphia pitchers that day. The Astros used four.

Until that decisive game, I had seen every pitch in the series. But the Oilers played the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on the same day. The Oilers lost 21-20. After the game, the Chiefs’ media relations director, Bob Springer, kept open the lounge behind the pressbox so Dale Robertson, who covered the Oilers for the Post, and I could watch the end of the NLCS game.

When the Astros led 5-2 entering the top of the eighth, Dale and I were confident they were going to win. How could they not with Ryan on the mound and being six outs from their first World Series?

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Ryan surrendered three consecutive singles and a walk before being replaced by Sambito and Forsch. When the damage was done, the Phillies scored five runs on five hits to take a 7-5 lead.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Astros tied it when Landestoy and Cruz drove in runs against McGraw.

In the ninth, the Phillies brought in Dick Ruthven, a starter with a 17-10 record that season. He pitched two perfect innings. Meanwhile, the Phillies won the series in the 10th when Garry Maddox’s double off LaCorte drove in Del Unser. Ruthven finished off the Astros by retiring three batters in the 10th.

Astros fans were devastated after their team blew a 2-1 series lead and a 5-2 advantage in the eighth inning of the decisive game.

The Phillies went on to defeat the Royals in the World Series. The Astros had to wait another 25 years to finally play in the World Series for the first time. They were swept 4-0 by the White Sox.

Fans who experienced that Astros NLCS collapse in 1980 feel like the Phillies owe them one. The Astros are heavily favored and have home-field advantage, but, as the Phillies proved 43 years ago, being the underdog and not having home-field advantage doesn’t mean squat with so much at stake.

(John McClain writes four columns a week for He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on

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