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The first Dodgers-Astros postseason series was pretty great

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The 2017 World Series teams used to play in the same division, and met once before in the postseason, 36 years ago.

Screen cap: MLB

My first memory of seeing the Dodgers was a 1972 Labor Day doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds, but I started listening to Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett well before that. I also read all I could about the Dodgers and baseball in general.

The Dodgers of the 1970s were and remain the team that I rooted for the most.

So when the team of your adolescence wins a World Series, that is a great thing. I spent the last year of my teens watching exactly that.

The 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers were a combination of veterans from the 1970s teams with some new, young additions beginning to make their place on the team. The famed infield of Steve Garvey at first, Davey Lopes at second, Ron Cey at third and Bill Russell at shortstop were in their ninth and final season together as a unit.

Don Sutton, the all-time leader in many Los Angeles Dodgers pitching career statistics, left as a free agent, signing with the Houston Astros after the 1980 season. Pedro Guerrero, 25, and Mike Scisocia, 22, began to play more significant roles on the Dodgers.

And then, there was 20-year-old Fernando Valenzuela, who captivated the city of Los Angeles on Opening Day in 1981, and would continue his great year all the way through the playoffs, capturing Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards along the way.

The playoffs in 1981 consisted of three rounds of due a mid-season strike. For the first time, division opponents would face off with the winner going onto the League Championship Series.

The Dodgers were the first half champions and their opponent was the Astros, winners of the second half. Houston was the first expansion team that the Dodgers faced in the playoffs.

Before this year’s World Series, the 1981 NLDS was the only postseason meeting between these two teams.

The Astros began their existence in 1962 and until 1979, they did not have much success. The most wins they ever had through their first 17 years was 84, never finishing above third place.

But in 1979, the Astros finished in second place, 1½ games behind the Reds for the division title. In 1980, the Astros held first place for most of the year, and looked to clinch their first division title, taking a three-game lead over the Dodgers to their final weekend series in Los Angeles.

The Dodgers would sweep that series with three incredible one-run wins that energized Dodger Stadium, forcing a one-game (regular season) playoff — also in Los Angeles — that was won by the Astros. That weekend created a rivalry that would be continued into next season.

Here is a recap of the 1981 NLDS:

Game 1: Tuesday, October 6, 1981

The Dodgers and Astros began their best-of-five series at the Astrodome. Nolan Ryan was 10 days removed from no-hitting the Dodgers, and he went against Valenzuela.

Ryan would pitch a complete game two-hitter, giving up a run while striking out 11 and walking three. His only run allowed was a solo shot by Garvey in the seventh inning.

Valenzuela matched Ryan, pitching eight innings and allowing a run, striking out six and walking two.

The game was tied 1-1 going to the bottom of the ninth, rookie right-hander Dave Stewart retired the first two hitters before giving up a single to Craig Reynolds. Alan Ashby then hit a two-run walk-off homer to give the Astros the win.

Final score: Astros 3, Dodgers 1

Game 2 : Wednesday, October 7, 1981

The Astros took a two games to none series lead when they got their second walk-off win in 11 innings. Denny Walling singled off Tom Niedenfuer to win 1-0 that also gave Stewart his second loss in this series.

Jerry Reuss pitched a great game, pitching nine scoreless innings, but he was matched by Astro starter Joe Niekro who shutdown the Dodgers.

After 1980 Rookie of the Year Steve Howe pitched a scoreless 10th inning, Stewart would give up two singles to start the 11th inning. Terry Forster came in next to record an out.

Niedenfuer intentionally walked Cesar Cedeno, then after striking out Art Howe, Niedenfuer gave up the hit to Walling, which meant the Dodgers needed to sweep the final three games at Dodger Stadium to advance.

Final score: Astros 1, Dodgers 0 (11)

Game 3: Friday, October 9, 1981

If someone were to name Dodgers from this period, I am not sure how quickly right-hander Burt Hooton’s name would be mentioned. But he pitched 10 seasons with the Dodgers (1975-84), and he comfortably slotted as a solid member of the starting staff.

Hooton began his successful postseason with a seven-inning, one-run start to open the weekend portion of this series. He was given plenty of run support when the Dodgers tripled their run output in the first two games by scoring three runs in the first inning.

Dusty Baker doubled home Davey Lopes to give the Dodgers a quick lead and Garvey followed with a two-run homer to make it 3-0.

The Dodgers would ice the game by scoring three runs in the eighth inning with a Bill Russell single, a Reggie Smith sacrifice fly and Kenny Landreaux base hit.

Final score: Dodgers 6, Astros 1

Game 4: Saturday, October 10, 1981

Mere words cannot explain how big an impact Fernando Valenzuela made in 1981. The Dodgers had great players, and several All-Stars since Sandy Koufax retired in 1966.

But I don’t know if any of them captured the city and would be known by just their first name like Fernando. I remember after Valenzuela had his fourth straight shutout to start the 1981 season, I bought two tickets to his next start at Dodger Stadium against the San Francisco Giants.

I took my brother and I believe we were on the Field Level listening to Scully and watching the game. As look back at the box score, it’s amazing that he pitched a complete game shutout while giving up seven hits and walking four. But that is how things rolled back in 1981.

In Game 4 of this Division Series, Valenzuela faced off against Vern Ruhle. Both pitchers threw a complete game but Valenzuela gave up just one run to get the Dodgers to the fifth game.

Guerrero would hit a solo home run to give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead, and Russell would single home another run in the seventh.

Valenzuela would go on to win the NL pennant clinching Game 5 and then post the Dodgers’ first win in the 1981 World Series. There were several great Dodger performances in the 1981 postseason but none were better than what Valenzuela did.

Final score: Dodgers 2, Astros 1

Game 5: Sunday, October 11, 1981

Ryan’s last two starts against the Dodgers were the no-hitter and a complete-game two-hitter, so facing him for an elimination game was a daunting task.

Reuss matched that task by pitching the Dodgers’ second complete game of the weekend. The game was scoreless until the sixth inning when after Baker walked and Garvey singled, then Rick Monday drove home the first run with a base hit.

Scioscia got a two-out single to score the second run and then an error scored the third run of the inning. Ryan would be taken out after that inning on the Dodgers were on their way.

Reuss would have one more moment in the sun at Dodger Stadium when he would win another Game 5, this time in the World Series to beat Ron Guidry and the Yankees 2-1.

The final out of the NLDS was recorded at first base on a strikeout pitch that got away from the catcher Scioscia.

Final score: Dodgers 4, Astros 0

Postscript

One statistic says a lot about this series: Dodger starting pitchers threw 42 of the 46⅓ innings in this series, and allowed three total runs. Reuss and Valenzuela stood out in the NLDS:

1981 NLDS pitching standouts

Pitcher Starts IP H R ER BB SO ERA WHIP
Pitcher Starts IP H R ER BB SO ERA WHIP
Jerry Reuss 2 18 10 0 0 5 7 0.00 0.833
Fernando Valenzuela 2 17 10 2 2 3 10 1.06 0.765
Nolan Ryan 2 15 6 4 3 3 14 2.40 0.600

While the Dodgers would also fall behind in the National League Championship Series (2-1, to the Expos) and the World Series (2-0, to the Yankees), there was no bigger threat to the Dodgers that year than the Houston Astros.

This season, the Dodgers have only the Astros in the way of their goal of a first World Series win in 29 years. I expect a series as tough as the 1981 National League Division Series and it will take all 25 players on the roster to beat another very good team from Houston.