After going from last place to a division title in slightly over a month, the Mets were rewarded with a berth in the NLCS against the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds had won the NL West for the third time in four seasons. This was the team known as the Big Red Machine: three Hall of Famers (Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez) were all in their prime. They would have a fourth player in Cooperstown had Pete Rose not been banned over a decade later. A comparison of the two lineups of rWAR using their most frequently used players at each position gave the Reds the edge at seven out of eight positions, with the Mets winning only at third base.
Pitching, however, was another story. The Reds' top starter, Jack Billingham, had an rWAR of 2.8 -- equaling George Stone, the Mets' fourth best starter. The Mets would get two major scheduling breaks as well. The first was the fact that at the time, home field advantage alternated between the divisions. This year was the East Division champions turn. So a sixteen and a half game advantage in the standings did nothing to change the fact that the first two games would be in Cincinnati while the rest of the series would be played in New York. Second, and even more important, was the fact that while the regular season was supposed to end on Sunday, October 1 (two days of rain caused the Mets to finish one day later) but the NLCS did not begin until Saturday, October 6. Yogi Berra would be able to rest his rotation. Tom Seaver, who pitched the last game and division clincher, could now pitch Game 1 on four days rest.
Game 1 -- Saturday, October 6
The Mets would have some early chances. They loaded the bases in the first on two singles and a walk, but Cleon Jones hit into an inning ending double play. In the second, Bud Harrelson walked and scored on Seaver's double. As it turned out, this would be the last hit for the Mets in this game. It looked like Seaver would be able to make his RBI hold up. Through seven, the Reds had only four hits and had gotten as far as second base only once. But Rose homered in the eighth with one out to tie the score. One inning later, Bench homered with one out as well. A 13 strikeout, no walk performance ended in a 2-1 loss.
Game 2 -- Sunday, October 7
As Yogi would have said, Game 2 was looking like deja vu all over again. Rusty Staub's fourth inning home run off Don Gullett gave the Mets a 1-0 lead. The Reds could only manage two singles off Jon Matlack -- both by Andy Kosco. Once again, there was scoring in the ninth. But this time, it was the Mets doing it. A four run rally gave Matlack the breathing room he needed. Or maybe he didn't need it after all. Matlack set down the Reds in order in the ninth to finish off the 5-0 win with arguably the best pitched game in Mets post season history. The Mets had a split in Cincinnati and were heading back to Shea Stadium.
Game 3 -- Monday, October 8
After scoring only one run for the first 17 innings of the series, the Mets had scored four runs in the ninth inning to break open Game 2. Apparently, the Mets decided they like this idea of scoring runs, because they would score in each of the first four innings. Once again, Staub opened the scoring with a solo homer, this time off Ross Grimsley in the first. Two more runs had already scored in the second when Grimsley was relieved by future Met Tom Hall with runners on first and second. Staub greeted Hall with his second homer of the day and the rout was on. Cincinnati would get two runs off Jerry Koosman in the third, but New York would respond with one in the bottom of the third and two more in the bottom of the fourth. That would end the day's scoring in a 9-2 Mets win, but there would still be more fireworks. Rose singled with one out in the fifth. Morgan hit into a 3-6-3 double play to end the inning. But Rose slid hard into second base, trying to take Harrelson out of the play. Harrelson objected, Rose punched him, and the brawl was on.
Pete Rose & Bud Harrelson Brawl, 1973 NLCS! (via CourtsideTweets)
What happened after the brawl was not Mets fans' finest hour. As Rose went out to left field for the bottom of the fifth, he was greeted by a shower of debris from the stands. Every time it seemed to quiet down, it would pick up again. Finally, the Reds left the field and the umpires threatened a forfeit if play wasn't resumed. A delegation led by Willie Mays went out to left field and essentially told the fans that if they wanted to see the Mets win, they'd better cut it out. The fans did cut it out, and Koosman had the Mets' third consecutive complete game of at least nine strikeouts.
Game 4 -- Tuesday, October 9
As you may have guessed by now, the Mets sometimes had trouble scoring runs in those days. My mother and I would watch the games and on the rare occasions when the Mets would score a lot of runs, Mom would tell me that they they should save those runs for the next day. I would try to explain that baseball didn't work that way. But sure enough, the Mets would invariably lose the next game 2-1 and Mom would give me her I-told-you-so look. This game would fit the pattern perfectly. With no off day, George Stone started Game 4 against Fred Norman. Once again, the Mets scored first. In the third, Don Hahn and Stone walked. Felix Millan would bring Hahn home with a single. With one out in the seventh, Tony Perez tied the game with a home run off Stone. When Stone walked Kosco with two out, Yogi went to the bullpen for the first time in the series. Tug McGraw finished the seventh and would pitch through the 11th. Harry Parker would come in for the 12th, but Pete Rose would homer off Parker with one out. The Reds would win 2-1 to force Game 5.
Game 5 -- Wednesday, October 10
During Game 4, Staub had made a running catch in right field just before hitting the outfield wall, which still lacked padding. Staub went into the fence shoulder first, falling onto the warning track as if someone had shot him. But he had held onto the ball for the out. The play came with a price -- although Staub finished the game, his shoulder was hurting too much for him to play in Game 5. Ed Kranepool would start in left field with Jones moving from left to right. Kranepool had lost the first base job to John Milner and had not played at all in the series, but the move would pay early dividends. In the bottom of the first, Millan and Jones singled off Billingham. Milner walked to load the bases. Kranepool singled to score the game's first two runs. As in every other game of the series, the Mets scored first.
The Reds came back in the third. Morgan doubled to right off Seaver and advanced to third on Jones' error. Dan Driessen's sacrifice fly made the score 2-1. The Reds then tied it in the fifth on a double by Rose and a single by Perez.
Wayne Garrett led off the bottom of the fifth with a double. Millan attempted to bunt Garrett to third. The attempt to throw Garrett out at third failed when Driessen came off the bag thinking the force play was in order. Jones came up with runners on first and third. If Bob Murphy had been in the booth for that inning, I'm sure he would have said something about baseball being a game of redeeming features. The redemption began with Cleon's double to give the Mets a 3-2 lead. Milner walked to load the bases, and Yogi played another hunch, sending up Mays to hit for Kranepool. Mays had not played in the series at all until now. In fact, he had not played at all since September 9. Willie hit a Baltimore chop that no could make a play on. It was now 4-2 and the bases were still loaded. Jerry Grote's grounder resulted in a force at home. Hahn grounded to short, but the Reds could not turn the double play and Milner scored the third run of the inning. Harrelson's single scored Mays to make it 6-2, and it hardly mattered that Hahn was tagged out at third to end the inning. Seaver led off the sixth with a double and scored on a single by Jones to make it 7-2.
Seaver retired the Reds in the seventh and eighth, but tired in the ninth. With one out, ex-Met Larry Stahl singled. Hal King and Rose walked to load the bases. Yogi came to the mound and took the ball from Seaver. A familiar Shea ritual was about to take place one more time. The right field bullpen door swung open. A golf cart with a baseball and an enormous Mets cap drove down the warning track. The cart stopped near the first base dugout. A human perpetual motion machine came out, headed to the mound and took the ball from Yogi. As the new pitcher began his warmup pitches, Jane Jarvis began playing an Irish jig. Everyone in the crowd knew what this meant: Frank Edwin McGraw, aka Tug, was in the game. Morgan popped out to Harrelson for out number two. Driessen hit a grounder between first and second, not quite in the hole. Milner fielded the ball and threw it to McGraw covering first. McGraw stepped on the bag and immediately lowered his head like a fullback on fourth and one as the fans stormed the field.
This series was supposed to be a mismatch. And in a way it was. Just not the way the experts predicted. The Mets' popgun attack outscored the Big Red Machine 23-8 and trailed in only two out of 48 innings. The Shea scoreboard would get the last word:
GUESS WHO'S NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONS.