Pennant race flashback: August 22, 1975

As long-time Bucco fans and students of team history know, the Pirates' 1970s, 1980s and 1990s pennant pursuits produced plenty of compelling memories, alongside a slew of deflating moments. This is the first installment in a periodic series looking back on some of those games.  My plan is to post these several times a week over the next few weeks (job duties permitting), with games drawn from that date in Pirates' history.  Enjoy!

BACKGROUND: After sweeping the Mets in a doubleheader at Three Rivers Stadium on August 3, the 1975 Pirates seemed poised to repeat as NL East champions: they stood 22 games over .500 and enjoyed a 4.5-game lead on second-place Philadelphia. A four-city road trip beckoned.

The road, however, proved unkind to the Bucs' hopes. Fourteen games in St. Louis, Houston, Atlanta and Cincinnati yielded just two victories. Weekend series in the Astrodome and Riverfront Stadium resulted in four-game sweeps. Their once-powerful offense topped three runs only twice and managed just 40 tallies during the road trip. Dock Ellis refused to warm up in the bullpen one day, berated Danny Murtaugh at a team meeting the next, and swiftly found himself suspended without pay.  By the time the Bucs returned to Three Rivers' turf on August 19, the Phillies had tied them for the top spot in the division, and the Cardinals lurked only 2.5 games out.

Two homestand-opening wins against the Giants restored sole possession of first place, but trouble loomed: the Reds arrived for a four-game series, beginning with a Friday night doubleheader.

These Reds had beaten the Bucs four times in a row over the previous weekend. They had won 63 of their last 84 games to open up a 16.5 game lead over Los Angeles in the NL West. Little more than two weeks later, they would become the earliest team in MLB history to clinch a playoff spot in a 162-game season. Sparky Anderson's lineup card for the first game began with "Rose, Griffey, Morgan, Bench, Foster"; that year's model of the Big Red Machine appeared fully worthy of the legend.

ACTION: A season-high home crowd of 46,575 ("screaming fans," per Charley Feeney of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) flocked to Three Rivers. They saw brilliant pitching from two young Bucco starters, timely power hitting, and two wins over the league's most formidable foe.

Larry Demery (age: twenty-two years, two months) took the ball for a spot start in the first game. Undaunted by Cincinnati's star-studded lineup, he pitched into the ninth inning, surrendering two runs on seven hits. The Bucs backed Demery up with a slow drip of offense at first—two Richie Zisk solo homers off Jack Billingham—before exploding for five runs in the sixth inning for a 7-2 win.

Rookie John Candelaria (age: twenty-one years, nine months) followed Demery in the nightcap. He and fellow rookie Pat Darcy matched zeros until the top of the eighth, when Tony Perez hit a Candelaria fastball over the fence for a two-run homer.

The Bucs, however, struck back dramatically in the bottom of the eighth. A Willie Randolph walk and Rennie Stennett double chased Darcy in favor of lefty Will McEnaney, who came into the night's play with a 1.83 ERA.

McEnaney retired the first two batters whom he faced, including Al Oliver's RBI groundout to cut the deficit to 2-1. But Dave Parker followed by driving McEnaney's pitch over the right-field wall for a two-run home run. Richie Hebner then made it back-to-back blasts with a homer of his own.

Dave Giusti retired the Reds in order in the top of the ninth to clinch the 4-2 victory and doubleheader sweep.

OBSERVATIONS: "Winning a doubleheader no matter what the circumstances is nice.  Winning a doubleheader when losing one means falling out of first place is nicer.  Winning that doubleheader against the most successful team in baseball is even better.  And to win that doubleheader with a rally in the late innings against the best reliever on the most successful team in baseball, well, that's simply dandy."

- Bob Smizik, The Pittsburgh Press

"A few minutes later, the Pirates were in their clubhouse and they didn't take this sweep in their accustomed coolness. There was noise, perhaps relief. Beating the Giants two in a row earlier in the week loosened them a bit, but this sweep restored confidence in all corners of the clubhouse."

- Charley Feeney, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

POSTSCRIPT: The Pirates took three of four from the Reds that weekend—with the only loss coming when Stennett's two-out error triggered an eight-run inning—and never let any of their NL East challengers within 3.0 games over the rest of the season.

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