1979 Cincinnati Reds: Winning The NL West In Transition

The Cincinnati Reds were in a period of significant transition in 1979. The Big Red Machine, that had won four pennants and two World Series titles from 1970-76, had started to break up in 1977, and two years later that process was accelerated.

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Manager Sparky Anderson was fired after second-place finishes in 1977-78, and then Pete Rose left via free agency for the Philadelphia Phillies. The 1979 Cincinnati Reds were able to win amidst the change, with new manager John McNamara and young third baseman Ray Knight helping lead the way to an NL West title.

Knight stepped into Rose’s old position and hit .318, one key part of an offense that ranked third in the National League in runs scored. The Reds didn’t hit a lot of home runs and they weren’t even great in batting average, but they drew walks better than anyone, and hit the ball into the alleys at Riverfront Stadium.

Joe Morgan, now 35-years-old at second base, was the perfect example. The future Hall of Famer only hit .250, but in drawing 93 walks, his OBP was a solid .379. Johnny Bench had a strong year behind the plate at age 31, a .364 OBP/.459 slugging percentage.

George Foster, the leftfielder who had been the team’s best player the last two years and the NL MVP in 1977, hit 30 home runs. Ken Griffey was still productive, at .374/.471. A key role player was backup outfielder Dave Collins, who came off the bench to put up a .364 OBP and provide a basestealing threat.

The pitching was pretty good too, ranking fourth in the NL in ERA. Tom Seaver was 34-years-old and still getting it done, winning 16 games, working 215 innings and posting a 3.14 ERA. Mike LaCoss, Fred Norman, Bill Bonham and Paul Moskau all had ERAs in the 3s, filling out a rotation that was not spectacular, but steady.

The bullpen was built around Tom Hume, whose versatility made a big difference all year. Hume made 35 relief appearances, 12 starts, and turned those into 17 saves, 10 wins and a 2.76 ERA. He got help from Frank Pastore, who also turned in some key starts, and Doug Bair, who saved 16 games, albeit with a 4.29 ERA.

Cincinnati started the season playing consistently and they were 25-20 on Memorial Day, amidst a packed NL West with the Houston Astros, San Francisco Giants and the two-time defending pennant winning Los Angeles Dodgers.

It was the Astros who made the strong move coming out of Memorial Day. They beat the Reds three straight in Houston out of the holiday weekend, then took a later series in June. Over the Fourth of July, Cincinnati again lost two straight to the Astros, by the midsummer, Houston was soaring, ten games ahead.

On July 5 the season finally started to slowly turn back in Cincinnati’s favor. Seaver took the mound against Houston ace J.R. Richard, a matchup we had not seen the last of. The top of the Cincy order chipped away at Richard. Griffey and Cesar Geronimo each had three hits, while Morgan drew four walks. The 5-4 win stopped the bleeding and over the next two weeks leading up to the All-Star break, Cincinnati chopped the Houston lead down to a manageable six and a half games.

Cincinnati picked up the pace out of the break, winning 10 of 15, including a three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Reds then went 19-7 in the month of August. Even with no head-to-head games against Houston, Cincinnati obliterated the division lead, spent a handful of days in first place and were within a half-game of the Astros on Labor Day, with a 77-60 record.

The lead was still Houston by a half on September 11, when the Reds and Astros met at Riverfront for a two-game set. Seaver and Richard each got the ball for the opener, although this time, neither had it. The Astros led 7-6 in the seventh, when light-hitting shortstop Dave Concepion hit a two-run homer for the Reds. Foster followed with another blast. The Reds hung on to win 9-8.

One night later Collings and Knight each had three hits, and both offenses got on the board early. Pastore came out of the bullpen and delivered 3.1 innings of one-hit ball, the first time a pitcher had settled things down in this series. Cincinnati won 7-4 and had a 1 ½ game lead.

Ten days later it was the penultimate weekend of the season. The Reds had upped the lead to 2 ½ games and were in Houston for a three-game set.

Friday night was another Seaver-Richard battle. Knight got to the Houston ace for a two-run shot early, but Richard settled down. Seaver pitched well, but the Astros chipped out two runs and both aces were gone as the game went extras, tied 2-2. Houston won it in the 13th.

Tensions grew higher for Reds fans on Saturday. They got a run in the first inning, but did not score again in a 4-1 loss. Cincy loaded the bases in the seventh with no outs, but failed to score, as three consecutive pinch-hitters were unable to do the job. Sunday’s finale would be a game for first place.

Pastore got the ball and delivered. He went the distance, scattered nine hits and gave up only one run. Foster homered early, Knight had three hits and five-run fourth inning gave Cincinnati an easy 7-1 win. They still had the NL West lead, but at 1 ½ games, with a week left, it wasn’t time to celebrate just yet.

The time to celebrate came the following Friday. Cincinnati was able to push their lead back to 2 ½ games, and they controlled the half-game in the event that makeup games were required on the following Monday. Pastore ensured that wouldn’t be necessary. He tossed a four-hit shutout against the Atlanta Braves for the home fans, and the party could start in Riverfront.

Cincinnati faced a familiar foe in the National League Championship Series. They had beaten the Pirates in the NLCS round in 1970, 1972 and 1975. This time, Pittsburgh got their revenge. In what was then a best-of-five round, the Reds lost extra-inning heartbreakers at home in Games 1 & 2 and then were routed in Game 3 for a sweep.

The Reds kept the post-Big Red Machine success going for a couple more years, but it seemed as though fate conspired against them. They had the best record in baseball in 1981, but the strike that roiled that year resulted in a split-season format where the winners of each “half” met in the playoffs for the division title. The Reds ended up a close second in both halves.

McNamara and Knight would go on to the World Series, but it was in 1986…when McNamara managed the Boston Red Sox and Knight played for the New York Mets, and both were at the heart of the incredible drama that was Game 6 of that Series.

The Reds would return to prominence in 1985—when Rose came back to town as player-manager. And they returned to October in 1990 when they won the World Series.