I mentioned earlier I first got into baseball in 1979, about the same time I bought my first Strat-O-Matic baseball game that included the 1978 season. One of the teams I enjoyed playing with was the Houston Astros. One reason for that was a pitcher I’d never heard of before: J.R. Richard. Although I’ve long since parted with my 1978 (and 1979) card sets, I recall those 303 strikeouts were featured prominently on his 1978 card. I suspect the 141 walks were there, too, but I don’t really remember them.
He as even better in 1979, fanning 313 batters while decreasing his number of walks to under 100. Houston finished second in the NL West that near, after finishing fifth the year before. Things were looking up for the team, and Richard was at the heart of it.
He was in the midst of his best season ever in 1980— and the team was, too— when disaster struck.
On July 30, 1980, Richard was warming up for a game against Philadelphia when he suddenly collapsed, the victim of a massive stroke. Although he would try, he never returned to major league baseball.
His life after baseball took a few more unexpected twists— including a period of time when he was homeless on the streets of Houston— but as was true of his pitching career, he found his groove again. I hadn’t been aware of his struggles. I’m pleased he persevered.
In 2015 he wrote a book called Still Throwing Heat chronicling his life from his time in baseball to the present day. I’ve included a picture of the cover. You can buy it on Amazon if you’re interested.
In part due to Richard (and, I must admit, also due to their unique uniforms), I decided to rate two of the teams he played on: the 1978 team and the 1980 team that lost the NLCS to the eventual World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies. The same Phillies team Richard was due to face when his major league career came to a halt.
As fate would have it, Houston faced the Phillies in the NLCS later that year. The NLCS was only five games in 1980 (it wouldn’t be expanded to seven games until 1985). Houston jumped to a 2-1 lead then lost consecutive extra-inning affairs, allowing Philadelphia to advance to the World Series against Kansas City. No less an authority than The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball called the 1980 NLCS “the most exciting playoff series ever staged.” Richard, of course, was no longer with the team.
I thought it might be fun to pit them against Philadelphia but with Richard on the roster to see if it changed things. It did. You can read all about it below.
Game 1: Richard outduels Carlton!
Joe Morgan scored 2 runs in the eighth inning to give the Astros a 4-3 lead and closer, Joe Sambito, shutdown slugger Mike Schmidt in the ninth to give Houston a 4-3 win and 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The game featured two of the best pitchers in the game. J.R. Richard pitched 8 innings and held Philadelphia to just 3 runs, all unearned. Phillies ace, Steve Carlton, pitched well in defeat.
|W – J.R. Richard (1-0)||L – Steve Carlston (0-1)||Sv – Joe Sambito (1)|
Game 2: Late rally leads Philadelphia past Houston, 5-3!
Bake McBride and Mike Schmidt led a late rally that pushed Philadelphia past Houston to tie the series at one game a piece.
Joe Niekro started for Houston and pitched 8 quality innings, allowing just 3 runs. Reliever, Joaquin Andujar gave up the game winning runs to Schmidt in the ninth inning and was tagged with the loss.
|W – Kevin Saucier (1-0)||L – Joaquin Andujar (0-1)|
Game 3: Ryan and bullpen shutout Phillies!
Nolan Ryan pitched 5 scoreless innings before giving way to a strong performance from the Houston bullpen that included a surpise save from 23-year-old, Gordie Pladson, who finished the regular season 0-4 with a 4.35 ERA.
Meanwhile, Bob Walk (11-7 with a 4.57 ERA during the regular season) was the tough luck loser despite pitching 6 innings and allowing just 1 run.
Jose Cruz scored the game-winner for Houston.
|W – Nolan Ryan (1-0)||L – Bob Walk (0-1)||Sv – Gordie Pladson (1)|
Game 4: Forsch, Houston shutout Phillies … again!
Ken Forsch pitched a complete game gem, shutting out the dangerous Philadelphia lineup for a second straight game and even contributing on offense by scoring the game-winning run in the fifth inning. Rafael Landestoy and Joe Morgan added one run each in the seventh and eighth inning to account for the final margin.
|W – Ken Forsch (1-0)||L – Larry Christensen (0-1)|
Game 5: It’s a wrap! Richard propels Houston to 4-1 series win!
J.R. Richard and Joaquin Andujar combined to shutout the slumping Phillies for the third game in a row and Houston won 5-0 to win the NLCS four games to one. Philadelphia could do nothing right and Houston little wrong in handing Steve Carlton his second loss of the series.
Over the course of 5 games, the Phillies tallied just 8 runs to Houston’s 16.
|W – Ken Forsch (1-0)||L – Larry Christensen (0-1)|
J.R. Richard had a fantastic series, pitching 15 innings while allowing no earned runs. Even so, it would be hard to give him all the credit for the victory over Philadelphia. Simply put, the Phillies didn’t play well, averaging just 1.6 runs per game and going 27-straight innings without scoring a run.
Except for game two, Mike Schmidt, who slugged 48 homeruns in the first of what would be two consecutive MVP seasons, failed to produce in critical situations and no one else on Philadelphia did either.
Houston, hardly an offensive juggernaut, received solid contributions from catcher Alan Ashby (5 runs), Jose Cruz and Joe Morgan (3 runs each) but, of course, it was the pitching staff that shined, compiling a remarkable 1.00 ERA for the series. Take away Richard, and their ERA was still just 1.50 (their ERA was 3.49 during the actual series).
It’s worth noting that both Houston and Los Angeles, who finished the season tied with 92-70 records, finished slightly ahead of Philadelphia, who tallied 91 wins against 71 losses. Indeed, the Astros entered their final series against LA with a 92-67 record, lost three straight, then needed an extra game to settle the tie.
The series may not have proved that Richard would have been enough to lead them to victory, but it did confirm that Houston was a good team in 1980 and may well have been the Phillies equal.