The Houston Astros took to the battlements tonight, protecting their endangered baseball Alamo against the first assult wave of the invading Cincinnati Reds with a sudden-death 3-2 victory in 13 innings.
Virtually every Astro had a hand in this vital win which cut the Reds lead in the National League West to 1 1/2 games.
The famous, like 6-foot-8 J. R. Richard who struck out 15 Cincinnatians, and relief winner Joe Sambito who fanned three more, held the fort for 3 1/2 hours of a taught 2-2 thriller.
Finally, it was the obscure and unheralded Astros -- so typical of this team -- who won this battle and kept Houston alive in the larger war.
Reserve catcher Bruce Bochy struck the final two-out bases-loaded single off Reds reliever Tommy Hume that sent a delighted Astrodome crowd of 44,975 out into this flooded town with smiles on their midnight faces.
It was a hidden hero, however, Enos Cabell who kept the final Houston rally going.
Cabell, the Astros acknowledged veteran leader, hit what looked like an inning-ending double play ball to Cincinnati's Joe Morgan in the 13th. But Cabell, stumbling out of the batter's box, blazed down the baseline and beat what would have been the third out on a play so eyelash close that even instant replay was ambiguous.
Cabell's hustle -- beating out what seemed like a certain made-to-order double play to the best keystone combo in baseball, Morgan and Dave Concepcion, seemed to give the Reds a sense of premonition.
After all, Tom Seaver and Richard had dueled through nine innings to a 2-2 tie. What Red could forget that if Dan Driessen had not booted a Richard grounder all the way into the Astros dugout for two bases, Tom Terrific would have won this magnificient pitcher's duel, 2-1.
Cincinnati, fearing a three-game sweep here that would knock them out of first place, could hardly forget that, once more, this cavernous Astrodome had silenced their mighty bats.
Those 18 Cincinnati whiffs were the entire tone of this evening, not the one swing of Ray Knight's bat in the second inning that gave the Reds both their runs on a 390-foot homer to left.
And didn't it have to unsettle the Reds that both runs off Seaver had been driven in with soft RBI singles by leadoff hitter Terry Puhl. Cincinnati sports names like Foster, Bench, Seaver and Co. who are headed to Cooperstown.
Yet the Astros keep hanging on the Red Machine's heels with fellows named Puhl and Bochy.
No sooner had Cabel prevented that crucial double play, than Cincinnati started to worry -- calling an uncharacteristic seven-member mound conference to decide what to do with men at the corners and two outs.
When Houston sent up Danny Heep, a rookie with a career .111 average in nine at bats, the remains of this once huge crowd were certain that Hume -- the NL'S leader in ERA (2.79) -- would feel competent to deal with such a lowly critter.
But, inexplicably, the Reds chose to play percentages -- facing the righty Bochy, rather than the lefty Heep, even if it meant facing a somewhat seasoned player, instead of an absolutely raw one.
Bochy, as though offended by the strategy, ripped the first Hume pitch between third and short, as Concepcion, whose pivot throw had failed to nip Cabell, threw his glove 20 feet over his head.
The last memories of this night will not be of the 13th, when Craig Reynolds singled, took second on a sacrifice, waited while Jose Cruz was intentionally walked, took third on the Cabel force and, finally, waltzed home on Bochy's hit.
Rather, the man of the evening was Richard.
The towering flame thrower, whose control was perfect tonight (just one intentional walk), made a mockery of the swings of all those Cincinnati gentlemen who may be headed toward the Hall of Fame.
Morgan, Concepcion, Foster and Bench -- the heart of the Reds attack -- went two-for-20 off Richard, with nine strikeouts. Foster and Concepcion led the parade with three each.
This contest was a splendid contrast between the two greatest right-handed strikeout pitchers in NL history: Seaver, who owns the league career whiff mark for righties and Richard, who has the season mark (303).
Richard simply threw his 100 mph heater, and his vicious 90 mph curve, past the long home-run swings of the Reds. Bench struck out on a curve that bounced in the opposite batters' box, while Foster never touched the fast balls that Richard threw in his up-and-in wheelhouse.
Seaver, by contrast, demonstrated the guile that has helped transform him this season, now that his fast ball has lost a foot or two. Seaver, who has won 13 of 14 decisions, and has been beaten only once in his last 21 starts, had only one perfect one-two-three inning.
Yet, he battled his way out of every jam.
Only a fluke may have kept Seaver from winning his third/head-to-head match up with Richard this season. In the third, Richard's hard grounder caromed off Driessen's meat hand and tricked through a gap in the guard rail in front of the Astros dugout -- turning a one-base muff into an automatic two-base error. Puhl followed with a single.
This night was a vindication for Richard, now 17-13. Four times this year he had started against the Reds -- four times Houston lost, with Richard charged with the loss three times. When Richard wasn't fanning the side once, or striking out four of the last five hitters he faced in extra innings, to bring his total to 289, he was beating out a perfect bunt to lead off the 10th, or even being thrown out by a hair on a surprise attempt steal of second.
Never has Richard pitched more than his 11 innings tonight, nor has he ever fanned more than this 15. And never has he looked more like a champion.
For days, all this town has talked about have been the torrential, flooding rains of Hurricane Freddy, and the impending arrival of the equally unwelcome Reds.
"We must win two-of-the-three," said Astro Manager Bill Virdon, "But it would be wise to win all three."
Tonight, the two hottest hurlers in the NL hooked horns. And, long after they left Houston won the war of attrition.
The second Cincinnati wave of attack is waiting. The Astros remain on the ramparts.