On paper, which this indisputably is, the National League championship series would seem a mismatch. The 1975 Cincinnati Reds have won more games (108) than any NL team has in the last 66 years. They have won more games at home than any team in the league ever has (64). They clinched the Western Division title on Sept. 7, the earliest that has been achieved. They are, as they immodestly acknowledge, awesome. They hit for power and average; they are among the finest defensive teams in baseball; they have extraordinary speed on the bases; they are both young and experienced; and they have a pitching staff that compensates for individual mediocrity with communal excellence.
Their opponents, the Pittsburgh Pirates, are, excepting Second Baseman Rennie Stennett and Rightfielder Dave Parker, weak defensively; they are slow and their pitching is inconsistent. About all the Pirates do really well is hit, and this they do as well as any team in the game. Still, man for man, position for position, the Reds would seem to have all the advantages. Even if the Pirates hit Reds pitching, as they probably will, the Reds should have little trouble hitting Pirate pitching. In a succession of 10-9 games, the Reds, with superior speed and defense, ought to have the edge.
But they should take note of some disconcerting intelligence. Although the playoffs will open in Cincinnati and the Reds have won nearly 80% of their home games this year, tradition is clearly against them, for this series has never been won by the National League team that has been the host for the first two games. And if these playoffs should extend to a full five games, the final three will be played in Pittsburgh, where the Reds lost four of six this year. In fact, they are little better than an average road team, having lost away from Riverfront Stadium nearly as often as they won.
"I would like to win the first two at home," says Reds Manager Sparky Anderson, whose world view approximates that of Dr. Pangloss. "It wouldn't be a disaster, but I'd rather not go to Pittsburgh tied 1-1. The main advantage we have at our stadium is confidence. We don't believe we can lose there."
Another disconcerting factor is the Reds' curious inability to hit left-handed pitching. They have beaten righthanders about 75% of the time, but they are barely above .500 against lefties. There is no logical explanation for this imbalance since, with sluggers of the stature of Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and George Foster, the Reds do not exactly lack right-handed power. And Pete Rose is not in the least disadvantaged, because he swings from both sides of the plate. The Reds themselves are at a loss to explain this single nagging imperfection.
"A righthander has a tendency to try and pull everything into the seats against lefthanders," offers Joe Morgan, a left-handed hitter. "I think that's what's been happening to our guys, and the pitchers just turn the ball over and keep it on the outside corner."
"Left-handed pitchers have changed," suggests Bench. "It used to be that they were all power pitchers. Now they turn the ball over and nibble. You try to pull it and you're dead."
Unless Bench and his fellow northpaw pull hitters can cure this tendency, they may indeed face extinction at the hands of the Pirates, whose three toughest pitchers, Jerry Reuss, Jim Rooker and John Candelaria, are lefthanders. The Reds seem determined, however, to clear any obstacle in their path to the world title that has eluded them these past five years. "We've won three divisional titles and two pennants," says Anderson. "But we haven't won anything yet. Not till we win the World Series."
Cincinnati's futile record should ensure against complacency. For several years Anderson and his men have been boasting that they were the best team in baseball. All that remains is for them to prove it. This would seem to be the time for that since their finest players—Bench, Rose, Morgan, Perez—are at the top of their game and the supporting cast is as solid as any in baseball. Although they hit for a team average of .271 with 124 home runs, the real strengths of this team, according to Anderson, are speed, defense and the bullpen. In Morgan they have one of the game's ablest base runners. He stole 68 bases this season, second only to Davey Lopes' 77. Morgan does not run as often as he might with sluggers Perez, Bench and Foster hitting behind him, and he is not the only swifty. Dave Concepcion has 33 steals, and Ken Griffey, one of the fastest men in the game, beat out an astonishing 38 infield hits. Center-fielder Cesar Geronimo, Foster and Dan Driessen can also run when called upon. And even Bench, hardly a sprinter, had 11 stolen bases in 11 attempts.
"We go from first to third as well as anyone," says Anderson. "We'll first-to-third you to death. And with our speed, we're hard to double and that keeps big innings alive."
Defensively, the heart of a baseball team is supposed to be up the middle—catcher, short, second and center field—and there the Reds have four Gold Glove winners in Bench, Concepcion, Morgan and Geronimo. By moving Rose in from left field to third base, Anderson strengthened both positions. Foster has developed into an outstanding outfielder, and Rose has played third base far better than last year's incumbent, Driessen. Foster, says Rose, is "the most underrated outfielder in the league."
Cincinnati's starting pitchers in the playoffs will most likely be Don Gullett (15-4), who probably would have won 25 games had he not missed two months with a broken thumb; Gary Nolan, who came back to win 15 games (against nine losses) after missing most of the last two seasons with an injured shoulder; and plucky little Fred Norman (12-4). None of them is expected to go nine innings, for it is Anderson's philosophy that pitching is a group project. Red starters went a record 45 consecutive games without finishing one, and the staff had only 22 complete games. But with relievers Clay Carroll, Pedro Borbon, Rawly Eastwick and Will McEnaney at the ready, a nine-inning tour by a starter seems to Anderson wretched excess.
The Reds did have their share of injuries this year. In addition to Gullett, Concepcion missed several weeks with a broken bone in his wrist, Perez had a fractured thumb, Griffey has been troubled by a sore arm, and Bench, who had been bothered by an aching left shoulder, recently injured his left ankle and suffered a groin pull. But the Reds feel this is their year no matter what.
The Pirates, who almost gave their division lead away in a woeful August, beg to disagree. For all of their clubhouse bickering (they are the A's of the National League), they are jolly sorts. When they dropped 12 of 14 games on one August road trip, they were able to laugh at themselves, a not entirely common trait among contending teams, and pull out of the slump. The most garrulous among them, Dock Ellis, has been significantly restrained since his tirade against Manager Danny Murtaugh earned him a brief suspension.
It is easy to make merry, of course, when you can hit the baseball the way the Pirates can. They have league-leading home run power in Dave Parker (25), Willie Stargell (22), Al Oliver (18), Richie Zisk (20) and Richie Hebner (15). This is not to mention Stennett, who cracked out 12 hits in three games, including a record-tying seven in one, and Manny Sanguillen, who hit .328 this season. The Reds and Pirates split the 12 games they played this year, but the Reds' group-insurance pitching staff hardly hampered the sluggers from Three Rivers. Of the Pirate regulars, only Frank Taveras hit below .275 against Reds' pitching. The Pirates also outhomered the Reds 16 to 8.
Pirate pitching is another matter. At one point during the season the team may have had the best starting pitching in the league. This was followed by a marked dropoff, then a recovery. Reuss has been effective most of the year, but Rooker has been hampered by a groin injury, Ellis has a wounded psyche and Bruce Kison contrived to lose seven games in a row. Candelaria, the rookie lefthander, will probably be the third starter in the playoffs after Reuss and Rooker. He is a sidewinder who is effective against left-handed hitting. He won one and lost one against the Reds. The Pirates' bullpen is not as effective as the Reds', although in Dave Giusti and Ramon Hernandez, two 35-year-olds, they have experienced, if fading, talent.
Defensively, the Pirates do not compare with their opponents. Stennett at second and Parker in right are outstanding, but they can scarcely compensate for their less nimble teammates. Hebner at third and Stargell at first are severely limited in range and Taveras at short is erratic. Zisk is a veritable statue in left field and Oliver is not the most mobile of centerfielders in the game. The Pirates also are vulnerable behind the plate, where Sanguillen had a bad year defensively. The Reds are the best running team in the league (169 stolen bases), and they stole seven in seven attempts against the Pirates this year. The only way to keep the Reds from stealing bases is to keep them off, and that's not easy.
The Pirates may prove tenacious, but it would be folly to pick against the Reds in this, the year of their destiny.