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Phil Niekro Owes Much Of His Success To His Fellow Ohioans

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Phil Niekro Went 6-0 Against the Reds To Help Atlanta to Championship

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Phil Niekro won 266 games in the National League, thanks in large part to two teams. The Hall of Fame knuckleballer, who passed away over the weekend, earned nearly a fourth of his victories against the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds.

Those two clubs, coincidentally, happened to be the main challengers trying to prevent Niekro's Braves from capturing the 1969 Western Division crown, which Atlanta ultimately managed to secure. While he beat the Giants in most of his starts against them that season, it was against the Reds that Niekro was absolutely dominant.

He started six games against the Reds in 1969, winning all six of them with a miniscule 1.73 earned run average. Five of them were complete games, the only exception being the April 13 contest, in which Niekro left after the seventh inning. In his total work against the Reds that season, Neikro worked 52 of the possible 54 innings.

The Braves, incidentally, finished just four games ahead of the Reds to win the N.L. West so, without Niekro's stellar magic, Cincinnati might have claimed the championship. After all, many of the pieces of the soon-to-be Big Red Machine were already in place, including Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench.

His first start against the Reds, coming on April 13, kind of foreshadowed his success against them for the rest of the season. Niekro limited the Reds to just four hits in a shutout, while also accounting for Atlanta's only run of the game.

Niekro led off the bottom of the eighth of the scoreless game with a single, before Felipe Alou sacrificed him to second. One out later Clete Boyer singled to bring in Niekro, who went back to the mound to get three groundouts for the 1-0 Atlanta victory.

Less than a week later Niekro got the start in Cincinnati, and again he tossed a four hit shutout. Unlike the previous occasion, however, his teammates provided a little more offensive support, including a home run by first baseman Orlando Cepeda.

On June 30, when Niekro next faced them, the Reds were a half game up on the Braves. He shut Cincinnati out for fthree innings, and by the time the Reds finally struck a run off of him, the Braves had already given Niekro a comfortable lead.

Hank Aaron crushed a three run homer off of Tony Cloninger, accounting four half of the six Atlanta plated in the fourth. The Reds bounced back with four of their own in their next at bat, only to have Niekro shut them out for the rest of the game and allow the Braves to re-take first place.

Cincinnati had regained top slot in the division by the time Niekro next faced them on July 18, and his dominance over them seemed to be in jeopardy. Pete Rose greeted him with a double on the very first pitch of the game, and Perez drove him in two batters later.

That one run would not be nearly enough, for the Braves pounded out a dozen of their own while Niekro returned to his previous dominance for the final eight innings of the 12-2 Atlanta victory that put them atop the division. Niekro himself managed to collect two hits and drive in a pair.

Having beaten the Reds four straight times and allowing them to score in just two of the thirty six innings, Niekro met early trouble in the fifth start. Perez clubbed a two run homer in the first inning of the September 5 game, a good sign that Cincinnati would increase its division lead over Atlanta from two to three.

Alas, Niekro would allow the Reds no more runs, while his teammates pounded Cincinnati pitching for eleven runs. He was now 5-0 against Cincinnati, and he still had one more outing against them.

His September 30 start was not quite as important, for Atlanta had already eliminated Cincinnati from contention. Still, Niekro could not pass up a chance at a complete six game sweep of the Reds.

After two scoreless innings, Niekro led off the third with a single and scored the first run. A pair of doubles from Lee May and Pete Rose allowed the Reds to take a 2-1 lead, which remained in tact through seven innings.

It appeared as if Niekro would get his first loss against the Reds, especially when Ralph Garr pinch hit for him after the stretch. Garr, however, drew a walk and raced to third on a game-tying RBI single by Tony Gonzalez.

Atlanta took the lead when Garr scored on Rico Carty's sacrifice fly, thereby keeping Niekro's streak against the Reds in tact. Hiyt Wilhelm, whom Niekro would join in the Hall of Fame, shut Cincinnati down for the final two frames to earn the save.

Unfortunately for the Braves, they met a team of destiny in the N. L. championship. The New York Mets took the series before shocking the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the Fall Classic, but it was Phil Niekro who single-handedly (or single-knuckledly) got the Braves to the championship round by sweeping his six starts against the Reds.





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