Baseball-Almanac.com's Divisional Series section
Although the Divisonal Series did not "officially" become part of Major League baseball's post season until 1995, an earlier version did take place in 1981 due to a split-season caused by strike action. The Executive Board of the Players' Association voted unanimously to strike on May 29th due to the unresolved issue of free-agent compensation. The deadline was extended briefly, however, after the Players' Association's unfair labor complaint was heard by the National Labor Relations Board. At 12:30 A.M on June 12th, union chief Marvin Miller announced the player's strike beginning the longest labor action to date in American sports history. By the time the season finally resumed on August 10th, seven hundred and six games (or 38 percent of the Major League schedule) had been canceled. As a result, it was decided that the first-half and second-half winners in each division would face each other in elimination rounds.
1981 National League Divisional Series:
Los Angeles Dodgers (3),
Houston Astros (2)
Throughout the 1980s, the Los Angeles Dodgers enjoyed one of their most successful decades in club history. In that time they would capture two World Championships (1981 and 1988), four National League Western Division titles (1981, 1983, 1985 and 1988) and win 825 games, tying them with the St. Louis Cardinals for most victories by a National League team during the decade. All that started though on Opening Day of the 1981 season when the Dodgers introduced a 20-year-old rookie pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela. Standing in for the injured Jerry Reuss, baseball's first Mexican starter blanked the visiting Houston Astros 2-0 igniting a national phenomenon known as "Fernandomania". Valenzuela would continue to dominate on the mound for the rest of the season while becoming the first rookie ever to win a Cy Young Award.
It was somewhat ironic that the victims of that Opening Day shutout would return to face Fernando and his Dodgers in the NL Divisional Series. The history between these two teams initially started when Houston had claimed its first NL West title in 1980 with a 93-70 record after defeating Los Angeles in a one-game playoff in the 163rd game of the regular season. The Valenzuela debacle merely added fuel to the fire and many felt that this particular Series would be one of the best. Despite getting off to a slow start, the Houston Astros were able to take advantage of the split-season finishing the second half with a 33-20 record. Nolan Ryan, arguably the greatest active pitcher in baseball, led the league with a 1.69 ERA and hurled his major league record fifth no-hitter, blanking the Dodgers on September 26. Teammate Art Howe also established a club record on the offensive-side with a 23-game hitting streak.
Future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan was given the start for Houston in Game 1 and responded by pitching his Astros to a 3-1 victory over the "shell-shocked" Dodgers. The following day three more Houston pitchers (Joe Niekro, Dave Smith, Joe Sambito) combined to shut out Los Angeles 1-0 putting themselves up two games to none in the-best-of-five series. On the verge of elimination, Steve Garvey and his fellow Dodgers finally managed to get some wood on the ball in Game 3 winning 6-1, and narrowing the Astros' advantage. Now with a newfound momentum, LA skipper Tommy Lasorda turned to pitching prodigy Valenzuela who evened the Series at two-games-a-piece with a brilliant 2-1 effort over his previous Opening Day rivals. Jerry Reuss, The Sporting News' Comeback Player of the Year in 1980, finished the job in Game 5, once again shutting out the Astros (4-0), who had failed to score upon him in 19 innings of the Series. Ruess would later go on to out duel Ron Guidry in the pivotal fifth game of the 1981 Fall Classic.
Canada welcomed back the post season after their Montreal Expos stood among the National League's elite for the third consecutive year. Boasting strengths on the mound, at the plate, and in the field, the Montreal faithful firmly believed that this would be the year. Slugger Andre Dawson continued his All-Star prowess, while pitcher Charlie Lea stood out in the rotation after throwing the third no-hitter (4-0) in Expos' history against the San Francisco Giants at Olympic Stadium. Teammate Wallace Johnson came up with perhaps the best performance of all after knocking a clutch, 2-run triple off New York Mets' relief pitcher Neil Allen to lead the Expos to the 1981 "second-half" East title.
The Philadelphia Phillies finished in first place (at 34-21 .681) over the first part of the '81 campaign, but had fallen to third place (4 1/2 games out at 25-27, knowing they were assured of a playoff berth). In a season filled with Major League marks, the Philly "Fanatic" certainly had a lot to cheer about. First, Pete Rose broke Stan Musial's National League record for most hits after knocking his 3631st. Then Mike Schmidt, considered by most to be the greatest third-baseman in baseball history, won the home run and RBI crowns as well as his second straight Most Valuable Player Award. And finally, Steve Carlton became the first lefthander in major league history to record 3,000 strikeouts.
Montreal downed Philadelphia in the Opener 3-1, thanks to a great performance on the mound by Steve Rogers, who would eventually spend (an unheard of) 13 seasons with the team. Nothing changed in Game 2 as the exact same play - resulted in the exact same score (3-1) giving the Canadians a two-games-to-none advantage and a nice case of Déjà vu'. Game 3 however, was a whole new ballgame as Philadelphia's bats came alive for 13 hits and a 6-2 victory that also witnessed four errors by the Expos' fielders. Going the distance (and then some), Game 4 appeared to anyone's until a pinch homer by George Vukovich in the bottom of the 10th, gave Tug McGraw and the Phillies a crucial 6-5 win over Montreal tying up the series at 2-2. Rogers returned for Game 5 and single-handedly won the playoff for Montreal by tossing a brilliant 6-hit shutout and knocking in 2 of his team's runs in the 3-0 victory. Unfortunately, Montreal was just a few games away from "Blue Monday" which has become the unwanted anniversary of when LA Dodgers' outfielder Rick Monday crushed the Expos' dreams of a trip to the World Series. He did so with a "movie-script" game-winning, 9th-inning home run off Rogers in the fifth and deciding game of the National League Championship at Olympic Stadium. In the end, the Expos hearts were broken; the Dodgers captured the NLCS and later went on to beat the New York Yankees in the Fall Classic. It was the third consecutive season that Montreal had been eliminated by the eventual World Series Champions.
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