In 1979, the Cincinnati Reds were experiencing a critical period of transition. Their Big Red Machine team, which had won four pennants and two World Series championships between 1970-1976, began disintegrating gradually starting in 1977; that process accelerated two years later.
After the 1976 season the heart of the team Tony Perez was traded, then Manager Sparky Anderson was dismissed following two consecutive second-place finishes (1977-78) for the Cincinnati Reds, followed by Pete Rose departing via free agency to join Philadelphia Phillies. Despite these changes, the 1979 Cincinnati Reds managed to come out victorious under John McNamara as manager, and third baseman Ray Knight led their way towards an NL West title win.
Knight took Rose’s place and hit 318, playing an integral part in an offense which finished third in the National League in runs scored. Although they didn’t hit as many home runs or maintain an ideal batting average, Riverfront Stadium saw the ball flying all over the stadium as the Reds took the divisional title.
Joe Morgan, now 35 years old at second base and drawing 93 walks over the year boosted his OBP to an impressive 379. Johnny Bench also enjoyed an outstanding year behind the plate at age 31, registering an OBP/slugging percentage ratio of.364 OBP/459 Slugging Percentage ratio.
George Foster had been their top player over the previous two years and won the NL MVP award. Ken Griffey continued his productive streak at 374/.471. Furthermore, Dave Collins proved invaluable as an impact player coming off the bench with a 364 OBP while providing a baserunning threat.
Tom Seaver led an excellent pitching staff at 34 years old, winning 16 games with a 3.14 ERA in 215 innings pitched. Mike LaCoss, Fred Norman, Bill Bonham and Paul Moskau all boasted sub-3s ERAs to fill out an experienced rotation that wasn’t spectacular but consistent.
Tom Hume was the cornerstone of the bullpen this season. His versatility saw him make 35 relief appearances (12 starts) that yielded 17 saves, 10 wins and an ERA of 2.76. Additionally, Frank Pastore provided critical starts while Doug Bair saved 16 games (albeit with an ERA of 4.29).
Cincinnati began the season playing consistently and were 25-20 on Memorial Day amid a competitive NL West with Houston Astros, San Francisco Giants, and two-time defending pennant winner Los Angeles Dodgers.
Starting on Memorial Day weekend, Houston made an immediate statement against the Cincinnati Reds by beating them three straight in Houston, then taking two consecutive series in June and four straight over the Fourth of July holiday weekend in Cincinnati – eventually Houston pulled ahead ten games and was surging.
On July 5, Cincinnati began slowly turning the season in its favor. Seaver returned against Houston ace J.R. Richard, a matchup of legends Griffey and Cesar Geronimo each recorded three hits for Cincy while Morgan had four walks en route to their 5-4 win and thus stopped any further bleeding out from Houston’s dominance over their division rival. Over the next two weeks before the All-Star break Cincinnati reduced Houston’s lead down to six and a half games before going into the All-Star break.
Cincinnati returned from their All-Star Break winning 10 of 15 games, including a three-game sweep against the Pittsburgh Pirates, before going 19-7 in August despite having no head-to-head matchup against the Houston Astros – shattering division leads and spending several days as leaders before ultimately falling within half a game of them on Labor Day with an overall record of 77-60.
Houston held onto their half-game lead when the Reds and Astros met again at Riverfront for a two-game set on September 11. Seaver and Richard each got to start for each side, though neither could finish his work. When the Astros led 7-6 in the seventh, light-hitting shortstop Dave Concepcion hit two homers for the Reds; Foster followed suit with another home run en route to a 9-8 Red win.
On night two, Collins and Knight each collected three hits as both offenses scored early. Pastore came out of the bullpen to pitch three innings of one-hit ball – marking his debut appearance in this series as an effective pitcher – as Cincinnati defeated Houston 7-4 for an advantage of one and one-half game.
Ten days later, it was the season’s penultimate weekend, and the Reds had stretched their lead to 2 1/2 games while traveling to Houston for a three-game set.
On Friday night, it was another classic Seaver-Richard battle. Knight connected for an early two-run homer off Richard, but Richard eventually settled down. Seaver pitched well, but Houston managed to score two runs; both aces retired as the game went extra innings, tied at two-all, with Houston eventually winning in 13 innings.
On Saturday, Reds fans saw tensions rise when the team scored one run early before going scoreless again for a 4-1 loss. Cincinnati loaded up the bases in the seventh with no outs but could not capitalize as three pinch-hitters failed. Sunday’s finale game would determine first place.
Pastore came through big time, scattering nine hits over eight innings while only giving up one run to the Astros. Foster hit an early homer, Knight had three hits, and Cincinnati cruised to an easy 7-1 win with just half a game lead in the National League West and only seven days left until playoffs begin.
On Friday night, Cincinnati had reason to rejoice as they increased their lead back up to two and one-half games, controlling half a game in case makeup games had to be scheduled on Monday. Pastore ensured this wouldn’t happen and delivered a four-hit shutout in front of home fans at Riverfront before starting the party!
Cincinnati faced Pittsburgh again in the National League Championship Series. They had previously defeated them three times – in 1970, 1972, and 1975 – but this time Pittsburgh got even. Over five games (at that point, best-of-five round), Cincinnati lost extra-inning heartbreakers at home before being completely routed in Game 3 for an unprecedented three-peat. A controversial call in game two on a clear catch by Dave Collins was the beginning of the end for the 1979 Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds continued their post-Big Red Machine success for a couple more years, although circumstances conspired against them. While the Reds led baseball in regular-season record during 1981, their record suffered due to the strike that year, which forced a split season format wherein winners from each half met each other for playoff spots, with each winning half coming away as champion. Unfortunately for them, both halves saw close second places whereby their season would end; unfortunately, the Reds finished second each time. The Reds had the best record in baseball in 1981 and, because of the split season, failed to make the playoffs. The Reds weren’t the only team screwed over in this as the St.Louis Cardinals had the best record in the NL East and didn’t qualify for the playoffs either.
McNamara and Knight would go on to meet again in 1986…when McNamara managed the Boston Red Sox while Knight played for the New York Mets, both men being involved in Game 6’s monumental drama.
In 1985, when Rose returned as player-manager, the Reds would regain prominence and eventually return to the October classic in 1990.
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