Cincinnati Reds: Can the comeback of the 1979 team be an inspiration?

Cincinnati Reds Dave Concepcion
Cincinnati Reds Dave Concepcion

The Cincinnati Reds are only 4.5 games out of first place. In 1979, another Reds squad mounted an unlikely second half comeback to capture a division crown.

Entering the 1979 season, the Big Red Machine was on life support. The Cincinnati Reds team that had been so dominant throughout the 1970s was gasping for air and needed a miraculous run during the second half of the season in order to make a run at the postseason.

Tony Perez was preparing for his third season with the Montreal Expos, hometown legend Pete Rose signed a free agent deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson had been fired after two consecutive second-place division finishes and the team’ architect, Bob Howsam, handed the reigns to Dick Wagner.

New Reds’ manager John McNamara had the impossible task of following Sparky and was saddled with a roster full of question marks. Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan was 35-years-old and coming off an injury plagued season in which he hit just .238 and played only 132 games. Ray Knight, a utility infielder who compiled just 39 hits over 3 seasons, was tapped to take over the hot corner for the departed Rose.

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In addition, you had a pitching staff that featured 34-year-old Tom Seaver and 36-year-old Fred Norman at the top of rotation. After consecutive second place finishes to the Los Angeles Dodgers in National League West, there was little reason to believe this would be the year the Cincinnati Reds would return to playing October baseball.

The 1979 season started ominously enough as the Reds dropped their first three games of the campaign to the San Francisco Giants, but they recovered to post an11-10 record through the first month of the season. Continuing to tread water through much of the first half of the season, the Reds found themselves at 41-41 and 10.5 games behind the Houston Astros on July 4th.

After defeating the Chicago Cubs on Sunday, July 15th, the Reds entered the All-Star break at 48-46 and trailing the Astros by 6 games. Despite left fielder George Foster spending time on the disabled list and outfielder Ken Griffey suffering a season-ending injury, Cincinnati caught fire.  Going 29-12 though August 31st the Reds found themselves in first place by 0.5 game entering September.

Fighting to capture their first division championship, the Houston Astros were not going to be dismissed easily. Through the first 10 days of the month, the two teams traded the top spot back and forth. Entering a two-game series on September 11th, the Reds hosted the Astros at Riverfront Stadium trailing the visitors by 0.5 games.

By the time the Astros left the Queen City, the Cincinnati Reds were up 1.5 games and appeared to seize control of the division. However, nothing was going to be that easy for the 1979 Reds and a trip to the Astrodome the second-to-last weekend of the season loomed on the horizon.

As the Cincinnati Reds waltzed into Houston on Friday, September 21st, they held 2.5 game advantage with an opportunity to put the upstart Astros away for good. Of course, the Astros had other plans and took the first two games of the series leaving Sunday’s finale to determine who would enter the final week of the season with sole possession of first place.

With the score tied at 1 in the top of the 4th inning, the Reds offense exploded for 5 runs with 2 outs and took a commanding lead in route to a 7-1 victory. Rookie right-hander Frank Pastore tossed a complete game fanning 5 and provided the Reds a 1.5 game lead heading to Cincinnati with a week’s worth of games at Riverfront to close the season.

Over the course of the 1979 season, the Reds never made things easy for themselves and the final week was no different. Dropping 3-of-5 games to the lowly San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves, the Reds received some help. The Astros lost 4-of-5 down the stretch and the Reds 90-71 record was good enough to capture the NL West Division title.

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Facing the heavily favorite Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cincinnati Reds lost two heartbreaking games in extra innings at home before being bounced from the playoffs by the Pirates in Game 3 of the NLCS at Three Rivers Stadium. Despite the quick exit from the postseason, the Big Red Machine was able to take one final gasp.