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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / 1973 Cincinnati Reds: How the West Was Won, but ultimate victory still eluded them

1973 Cincinnati Reds: How the West Was Won, but ultimate victory still eluded them

Publish Date: 07/03/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

This was supposed to be the year

The 1973 Cincinnati Reds were looking for their final step to a World Championship, which they had not won since 1940. Both 1970 and 1972 brought them close, reaching the World Series before falling short, in 1972 they literally fell one run short. 1973 was supposed to finally be the Reds year.

Cincinnati baseball history remembers this period as the time of the great Big Red Machine, and in 1973 all its components were working seamlessly together. Pete Rose experienced one of his finest seasons ever as a left fielder; winning an NL MVP award with a league-leading batting average (.338) and on-base percentage (.401).

Joe Morgan posted a.406 OBP/.493 slugging percentage and stole 67 bases to lead one of the National League’s best running games. While Johnny Bench failed to match his MVP performance from 1972, he still hit 25 homers, drove in 104 runs, and won his third Gold Glove behind the plate. Meanwhile, Tony Perez hit 27 homers while collecting 101 RBIs at first base.

Denis Menke was a key contributor, even while only hitting.191. Yet his patience at the plate led to a solid.368 OBP; Dave Concepcion provided reliable glove work at shortstop while Dan Driessen, at just 21 years old, made an impactful contribution off the bench as both an outfielder and first baseman; his production compensated for Cesar Geronimo and Bobby Tolan’s down seasons, allowing the Reds offense to finish second overall in runs scored.

Jack Billingham led a solid and underrated pitching staff, winning 19 of 40 starts he made and posting an impressive 3.04 ERA across his 40 starts. 23-year-old Ross Grimsley in 36 starts had an ERA of just 3.23, while Don Gullett earned a record of 18-8 across 30 starts with an ERA of 3.51.

These three starters formed the backbone for Cincinnati manager Sparky Anderson’s “Captain Hook” approach to bullpen management. His bullpen featured great year-round work from Pedro Borbon (with 2.16 ERA), Clay Carroll and Tom Hall, as well as respectable contributions from a few others. Cincinnati finished fourth overall in composite ERA rankings during that season.

The Cincinnati Reds began the season strongly and had reached 15-8 by May’s first weekend, only to stutter during a 12-game stretch where Cincinnati went 5-7 and fell victim to archrival the Los Angeles Dodgers at home. By Memorial Day weekend, they had fallen back into fourth place behind San Francisco Giants (leading), Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros.

Here is an excellent opportunity to remind younger readers that before 1994 the leagues were divided into only two divisions, east and West. Cincinnati and Atlanta played in the National League West along with the Giants, Dodgers, Padres, Astros (National League team until 2013).

Remember that only first-place teams qualified for postseason play – and, subsequently the NLCS. Even though the Reds had only fallen two and one-half games behind in an intense NL West race, the pennant-race intensity had to come early to keep up in the tough West.

Cincinnati was hit hard in early June, losing nine of 14 games, including five to St. Louis. They fell 5 1/2 back. Beating the Pittsburgh Pirates three out of four seemed to help Cincy regain momentum until Pittsburgh returned the favor and won all four games against them in return.

Cincinnati did not sit idle. They made an aggressive trade to acquire starting pitcher Fred Norman in June, who went on to win 12 of 24 starts while posting a 3.31 ERA and giving needed depth in their rotation. Cincinnati won 15 out of 20 going into the All-Star break, giving their fans hope they could stay competitive and beat everyone.

Video: Cincinnati Reds Walk Off Hal King Home Run 7 1 1973

Cincinnati Reds Walk Off Hal King Home Run 7 1 1973

Los Angeles was in red-hot form at the break, boasting an astounding 63-37 record that easily led all major league clubs.  Cincinnati was still within striking distance, holding onto second place at 57-42, yet they still lagged by 5 1/2 games from Los Angeles. Nothing was better than the pennant races in the heat of the summer with no safety net(Wild Card).

The Reds found a way to turn things up during the latter part of summer, winning 17 out of 23 games after the break and scoring 22 runs against the Cardinals during a three-game sweep and then on the road against Pittsburgh. By Labor Day, they had closed the Los Angeles gap to only one game while remaining as the two best teams in baseball – plus they would meet five times again head-to-head!

But as is often the case in an extended pennant race, key moments came just before actual showdowns. In the week after Labor Day, both Cincinnati and Los Angeles played against weaker division rivals; Cincinnati won five out of six, while Los Angeles dropped all six. When Los Angeles arrived at Riverfront Stadium for two-game series starting September 11, they found that Cincinnati already held a three-game advantage over them.

Cincinnati began the series on Tuesday evening with momentum on their side. In a 3-3 game in the eighth, Driessen got things rolling by hitting a double, followed by an intentional walk to Bench and another walk, leading to two runs being scored with just one out and an error scoring another, giving Cincinnati their first victory at 6-3.

Billingham was the star on Wednesday, pitching a complete game and hitting a bases-loaded double for Cincinnati to claim a 7-3 victory.

The Reds extended their lead to five games, and looked poised to run away with the division – winning five out of their next seven. But the Dodgers found new life, cutting it back down to 4 1/2 games on the penultimate weekend when both teams met in Los Angeles again.

Cincinnati needed to just not fall apart in the last week to seal the division.

Perez delivered his three-run blast in the top of the 10th to win 4-1 against L.A. starter Claude Osteen in extra innings. Perez will go down as one of the greatest clutch hitters in baseball history.

Cincinnati carried over its momentum into Saturday afternoon’s matchup against Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Don Sutton, scoring seven runs in the opening frame thanks to a double by Gullett- leading the charge against Sutton , Gullett had arm issues and had to leave in the fifth inning. Los Angeles slowly chipped away at Cincinnati’s lead; by the bottom of the ninth inning, they put two runners aboard with just one out.

Captain Hook used all three of his key relievers – Borbon got Steve Garvey, Hall retired Willie Davis and Carroll struck out Bill Russell to preserve victory and keep this race from further unfolding. Even though an opportunity to officially end this race had been lost on Sunday with their 6-4 defeat by Philadelphia, the Reds still needed one victory to put this race behind them and close this chapter for good.

They wasted no time on Monday night against San Diego, doing it in front of their home fans with ease. Perez homered while starting pitcher Dick Baney pitched seven scoreless innings. And when Borbon got Dave Hilton to ground out to backup infielder Darrell Chaney at short, Cincinnati were once more champions of the NL West!

Cincinnati was considered a heavy favorite to win the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets due to their dominance of NL West competition, the NL East was a weak mess until the Mets stormed through with an 82-79 record and defeated Cincinnati 3 games to 2. Cincinnati seemed on their way back to World Series, where they could exact revenge against either Baltimore Orioles, who had defeated them three years prior or Oakland A’s, who had defeated them four years earlier.

But Cincinnati would never get that chance; outside of Rose, no other hitter produced as expected. Billingham only managed two subpar starts in a best-of-five series that went all five games deep before Cincinnati lost. This upset marked one of the greatest postseason upsets ever and remains one of the biggest to this day.

Video: NLCS Gm3: Harrelson and Rose scuffle at second base

NLCS Gm3: Harrelson and Rose scuffle at second base

1974 proved another year of disappointment for the Reds; while still strong, the Dodgers outpaced them and won the National League West title. Yet vindication came quickly as 1975 was won and then repeated in 1976!

Video: 1973 NLCS Gm5: Mets get final out to win NL pennant

1973 NLCS Gm5: Mets get final out to win NL pennant

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