This day in baseball history: NL races head in opposite directions

1969 was the first year that major baseball broke up its two leagues into divisions. It did so to accommodate the four new teams added that season. With both leagues now consisting of 12 teams, it made sense to divide each into two division with six teams.

For the first time, the National League had two pennant races. They took widely divergent paths.

In the NL East, the Chicago Cubs got off to a fantastic start, and threatened to run away with the title. The Cubs stumbled some in July, when the New York Mets cut the lead to 3.5 games.

However, by early August, Chicago seemed to be back in control. At the start of play on August 4, the Cubs led the Mets by 6 games.

The NL West was up for grabs throughout the season, with at least four teams in serious contention. At the start of play on August 4, three teams were tied for first place — Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Atlanta. Los Angeles was a game behind. Houston was in fifth place, but trailed the leaders by only 2 games.

August 4 was a Monday, and only four games were on tap in the National League. All four had playoff implications.

In Montreal, the expansion Expos hosted the Braves. They jumped all over Braves’ starter George Stone, and coasted to a 7-1 victory behind Jerry Robertson, who upped his record to 3-9. Rusty Staub, “Le Grande Orange,” hit a two-run homer in the first inning, and the Expos never looked back.

In St. Louis, the NL’s reigning two-time champion Cards were struggling to keep alive their slender hope of repeating. They played the Dodgers.

This game was a pitchers’ duel between two of the NL’s better right-handers — Bill Singer for LA and Nelson Briles for St. Louis. Singer took a 1-0 lead into the seventh inning, but Tim McCarver erased it with a home run. Then, in the bottom of the ninth with the score 1-1 and two outs, Julian Javier won the game for St. Louis with a homer off of reliever Jim Brewer.

In Houston, the Astros had a chance to gain ground, but had to face the hot-again Cubs and their best pitcher, Ferguson Jenkins. The Cubs had six runs by the time the big Canadian yielded his first to the Astros in the fifth inning. Chicago breezed to a 9-3 victory. Glenn Beckert had five hits, including two doubles. His fellow all-star Randy Hundley chipped in with two hits and four RBIs.

With Houston, Atlanta, and Los Angeles all losing, and San Francisco not playing, Cincinnati, playing at home, was in a position to gain ground on all of its rivals and to gain sole possession of first place. To do so, however, the Reds had to beat all-star pitcher Jerry Koosman.

The Reds countered with Jim Maloney. He had been one of the National League’s best pitchers earlier in the decade, but by 1969 chronic arm problems had slowed him down. To make matters worse, he pulled a groin muscle in late April. As of August 4, he hadn’t won a game since.

Cincinnati squeezed a run off of Koosman in the bottom of the third. Pete Rose walked with one out and Bobby Tolan sent him to third with a single to right field. Deron Johnson drove Rose home with a sacrifice fly.

Maloney didn’t face his first real jam until the sixth inning, and the problem was not mainly of the pitcher’s making. With one out, Bud Harrelson reached on an error by Chico Ruiz. With two out, Tommy Agee singled Harrelson into scoring position.

Up stepped Cleon Jones, the Mets’ best hitter. His grounder forced out Agee at second base to end the inning.

Maloney set down the Mets in order in the seventh and eighth innings. The score was still 1-0 Cincinnati, entering the ninth.

Maloney retired Donn Clendenon and Agee to begin the inning, but then walked Jones. Although Maloney was working on a two-hit shutout, Cinncinati manager Dave Bristol opted to pull him after the walk. In came Wayne Granger to face Ed Kranepool.

Granger, acquired by the Reds along with Tolan for Vada Pinson the previous Fall, was having an excellent year. Still, Bristol’s the move was questionable, and not just because Maloney was pitching so well.

Even at his best, Granger struggled against left-handed batters. In 1969, they hit .323 against him. And Kranepool was left-handed.

Nonetheless, Granger induced a ground ball to the second baseman. Ruiz threw him out to end the game.

The Reds were now in first place, half a game ahead of the idle Giants. The Mets fell to 7 games back, just 2.5 games ahead of third place St. Louis. Their hope of catching the Cubs seemed to be fading fast.