Anybody who has anything bad to say about the you take it, I don't want it pennant race between Cincinnati and Houston has permission to let fly after the abomination those two low-budget powers staged here tonight.
The survivors of one of the premier bonehead games of our time were the Reds, 9-8, moving back into first place by half-game in the thrillingly blunder-filled National League West.
The titular game-winning blows were back-to-back by Dave Concepcion and George Foster in a three-run eighth against Houston relief ace Joe Sambito. Their liners over the left field wall turned a 7-6 Houston lead into a 9-7 Cincinnati margin.
And it was Concepcion who saved the game in the ninth by streaking behind second base to keep Rafael Landestoy's fifth hit of the game within the infield and prevent the tying run from scoring from second base. That was as splendid a pressure play as any September could ask. When relief winner Tom Hume struck out the final Astro pinch hitter, Art Howe, on a called strike with men at the corners, the Reds escaped from the sort of confidence-shattering loss that can be the fulcrum in a season-long struggle.
To be sure, these teams who meet again here Wednesday night, then again for three games a fortnight hence in Houston, should have the most horrid of baseball nightmares. This was the first true pressure game down the stretch for both these jerry-rigged contenders, and they folded their tents in a hail of mental snafus.
Los Angeles should be forced to watch this game on the late show. Well, Dodgers, these are the teams that kept you out of the playoffs.
The paid attendance in Riverfront Stadium was 40,574 tonight, but 6,604 straight-A students were guests of the Reds. Hopefully, their door prizes were 6.604 blindfolds. There was nothing for them to learn from this comic masterpiece.
The hottest pair of pitchers in the National League squared off in this slugfest -- the Reds' Tom Seaver, who had won 12 of 13, and the Astros' J. R. Richard, who had a 1.02 ERA while winning nine of his last ten starts. If ever a game should have been 1-0, this was it.
Both came out throwing bullets, the two of them fanning nine men by the time the scoreless game entered the bottom of the fourth. And, naturally on this madhouse night, neither of them lasted past the top of the sixth.
Actually, the assault against the two flame throwers could have been worse if both teams had not acted like escapees from a blind man's school of base running.
The Reds rocked Richard, whom they had already beaten three times this season, with four runs in the fourth. Johnny Bench's two-run base-loaded double keying the uprising. But George Foster set the motif for the night by running through the third base coach's "stop" sign with none out. He was thrown out by a marvelously grotesque 30 feet.
It was off to the races after that. "By the time I'd get to third, I'd be too tired to run through the sign,' Bench said. "But I think I was the only one. All night I'd see Bob Lillis (Astro third base coach) throw up his arms, and all night they just kept coming at me."
In the Astros' two-run sixth, Jeff Leonard was gunned out trying to go from second to third on a pitch that bounced only 10 feet from Bench. Landestoy distinguished himself that inning by ignoring Lillis' "halt" order and scoring standing up. The Reds' cutoff man, Dan Driessen, was so stunned that he double pumped with the ball, then had to eat it as Landestoy ran the last 60 feet while Driesen gaped.
The fun was just starting. The goofy dust was piled particularly deep near third base. Anything could happen there.
On one play, Concepcion was trapped off third with no outs on a simple chop to third. He prolonged the rundown, which he never should have been in, until pitcher Joaquin Andujar blundered into the base path. Concepcion, a dead duck, deliberately barreled into him and was properly awarded home plate on Audujar's "obstruction."
The seventh inning was a particularly fine piece of work -- the perfect training film to send the Russians. It'd set them back a generation.
On consecutive plays, Houston's Jose Cruz and Enos Cabell ran through Lillis' desperate hopping-up-and-down arm-waving. Cruz tried for the plate on a short sacrifice fly to left and Cabell wheeled in from second on a weak single to left. Both made it.
Cruz scored only because Red third baseman Ray Knight somehow out off a perfect throw on the fly when it was only 15 feet from the plate. Cabell simply made a brilliant fall-away slide around Bench. Those runs, a testimony to bad judgment, put Houston ahead, 7-6.
To start the eighth, Sambito walked the leadoff man, then fielded an awful sacrifice bunt attempt, whirled and skipped the ball into center field. No problem: The Reds gave the edge right back as the man on second, Hector Cruz, promptly got himself picked off by the catcher.
Usually, such debilitating hilarity might kill a rally. Not tonight, not on an evening that should have been dedicated to the memory of Carlos Paula Concepcion and Foster followed with their rifle shot homers. To finish the inning in style, Driessen barely missed a third homer off Sambito with a line shot that hit the top of the right field wall -- Driessen admired his blast so long that the speedster ended up with a 380-foot single and a shamefaced look.
The final indignities were saved for the ninth, Jesus Alou doubled with two out and the score, 9-8. Alou thought Landestoy's chop had made it into center field, not believing Concepcion could make such a play.
Head down, Alou rounded third. Concepcion, ball in glove, prepared to throw him out to end the game. Lillis, however, had finally had enough. Poised like an NFL linebacker, Lillis hung out the clothesline.
As Alou glanced up toward home, he saw not a "stop" or "go" sign, but a forearm poised to take off his head, if necessary. Alou's feet flew out from under him and he scrambled back to third safely.
Then the clubs had a final futile flurry of attempts to give the game away. Houston finally succeeded. First, Landestoy was caught off first, but Bench threw in the dirt. The crowd gasped as Driessen blocked the ball, preventing a game-tying error.
At last, pinch batter Howe had the final word. With two strikes and the tying run on third, he committed the cardinal sin of taking a close pitch.
Hume's curve ball appeared low, but the home plate umpire had seen enough. If these two squads had gone into extra innings, they might have played until dawn, each trying to lose and failing.
"Strike three," he bellowed.
It was the wise choice.