BACKGROUND: Life after Clemente proved a struggle for the Pirates. The 1973 Bucs, hampered without their longtime leader and hindered by Steve Blass's mysterious decline, fell short of the high standards set by their three NL East champion predecessors. Four times in the season's first 55 games, the Pirates lost five or more in a row. By July 8, they languished in fifth place, eight games under .500 and 10.5 behind first-place Chicago. ("Amidst the wreckage that has become the 1973 Pirate season, only a few recollections of excellence remain from the championship years," remarked Bob Smizik in The Pittsburgh Press.)
But occasional rays of light pierced the bleakness. The Bucs still employed a collection of feared sluggers, men named Stargell (who enjoyed the most productive season of his storied career), Zisk, Hebner and Oliver. The midseason acquisition of a non-slugger, shortstop Dal Maxvill, greatly strengthened the Bucco infield defense. Most importantly, nobody else in the NL East was all that good: the Cubs collapsed significantly in the second half, and the rest of the Pirates' divisional foes struggled to stay over .500.
At around 3 am on September 7, with the Bucs having lingered within a few games of first place for several weeks, general manager Joe L. Brown took drastic action: he decided to fire second-year manager Bill Virdon and replace him with Danny Murtaugh.
Brown's gambit brought immediate benefits. The Pirates won seven of their first nine games under Murtaugh and moved into sole possession of first place for the first time since the season's early days on September 12.
Five days later, they had a 74-72 record, good for a half game lead on the Expos, 2.0-game lead on the Cardinals, 2.5-game lead on the Mets, and 5.0-game lead on the Cubs. The schedule-maker offered them the opportunity to settle matters with a New York club that had rallied around relief pitcher Tug McGraw's cry of "You gotta believe!" The Bucs and Mets would start the week with Monday and Tuesday games at Three Rivers Stadium; they would then move to Shea Stadium for three more games.
The home-and-home started well enough for the Buccos. They shelled Tom Seaver in a Monday night victory, and rolled to a 4-1 lead through eight innings of Tuesday's game. The Mets, however, rallied for five ninth-inning runs and held off the Pirates in the bottom of the ninth for a 6-5 win. When the setting moved to New York on Wednesday night, the Mets earned another victory; the Bucs now had a 1.0-game lead on the Expos and 1.5-game leads on both the Mets and Cardinals.
"Has the Murtaugh Magic disappeared? Or have the Mets stolen it?", wondered Charley Feeney in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Thursday's battle of veteran left-handers, Jim Rooker and Jerry Koosman, loomed as a pivotal game.
ACTION: That night's first three and a half hours of baseball proved just as inconclusive as the previous 24 weeks. Three times in regulation, the Pirates took a one-run lead; all three times, the Mets promptly drew even, with each rally by degrees more demoralizing than the last.
Stargell scored on a Bud Harrelson throwing error in the fourth inning; Cleon Jones' two-out RBI single tied the game in the sixth. Hebner's seventh-inning solo homer off Koosman restored the Bucco lead; pinch-runner Ted Martinez negated it in the eighth by racing home from second on Felix Millan's single and Oliver's error.
In the top of the ninth, Bob Robertson led off with a single, and Murtaugh called on rookie Dave Augustine, appearing in his fifth major-league game, to pinch-run. Two outs later, Dave Cash's double drove in Augustine; the Pirates stood just three outs from a hard-fought victory.
Murtaugh summoned Bob Johnson to record those three outs, but Johnson surrendered a leadoff single to Ken Boswell on a 3-0 pitch. Don Hahn bunted Boswell to second. Yogi Berra sent up lefty swinging Ed Kranepool to pinch hit; when Murtaugh responded by replacing Johnson with lefty Ramon Hernandez, Berra pulled Kranepool in favor of right-handed batter George Theodore. Hernandez foiled the strategy by striking out Theodore.
Down to his last out, Berra pinch-hit Duffy Dyer for pitcher Harry Parker. The future Bucco's prospects of success appeared slim; he had not had a hit since August 23 or an RBI since July 10, and his triple slash line sat at an anemic .181/.241/.234. But Dyer lined Hernandez's 0-1 pitch just out of the reach of Stargell and off the left-field wall. Once again, the game was tied.
The teams stared each other down in stalemate for the next three innings. In the top of the thirteenth, Zisk reached on a one-out single of Ray Sadecki. One out later, Augustine stepped to the plate. The next play would prove memorable, but for the wrong reasons:
On Thursday night, in a game that may have surpassed any played this season for prolonged suspense, the Pirates appeared to be a winner in the 13th inning when, with two out and their Richie Zisk on first base, Dave Augustine hit a drive deep toward the left-field bullpen.
Zisk, running with the pitch, looked certain to score as the ball struck the edge of a wooden plank that serves as the very top of the eight-foot fence. It hit so high, in fact, that there seemed every possibility it would bounce over and out and give the Pirates a 5-3 lead and almost surely the game.
But the ball not only stayed in the park, it caromed off the top of the fence and plopped, as if tossed there by unseen hands, into the glove of an astonished Cleon Jones. Barely pausing to see if it was indeed a ball he had there or perhaps a beer cup pitched from the upper deck, Jones wheeled and threw to cutoff man Wayne Garrett. Third base is Garrett's position, but he had moved to shortstop in the late innings as a replacement for Bud Harrelson. By his own postgame admission, cutoff throws are as foreign to him this year as, say, placekicks, but the one he delivered this night was true and on the bounce to Catcher Ron Hodges, and Zisk was clearly out.
- Ron Fimrite, Sports Illustrated
Moments later, the game was over. Luke Walker opened the bottom of the frame by walking John Milner and Boswell on a combined nine pitches. Murtaugh turned to closer Dave Giusti, who had appeared to tire in the season's stretch drive. Giusti retired Hahn on a pop-up, but the rookie Hodges, in his first of twelve seasons as a part-time catcher in New York, singled on a 0-2 fastball to drive home Milner for the 4-3 victory.
OBSERVATIONS: The pennant race this morning in the National League East resembles a traffic jam of Edsels. The Pirates, stunned, bewildered, are a sinking first-place club. The Mets, who beat the Pirates 4-3 in 13 innings last night, are a rising second-place club.
- Charley Feeney, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ranking right up there at the top of the list among the game's least distinguished hitters are Duffy Dyer and Ron Hodges, known also as the Who Twins. Though their feats with the bat are scarcely legendary, they will be long remembered by a group of men whose skills with the lumber are nationally acclaimed—the Pittsburgh Pirates. Make that the staggering Pittsburgh Pirates.
- Bob Smizik, The Pittsburgh Press
POSTSCRIPT: The Pirates still had a half-game lead over the Mets, but that lasted less than 24 hours; New York knocked out Blass in the first inning on Friday night and coasted to a 10-2 win. First place hovered just out of the Bucs' reach for the balance of the season; they kept the mathematical possibility of a title alive until the season's final day, but ultimately finished in third place with an 80-82 record. It would be the Pirates' only season from 1970-75 without an NL East title. It would also be the Bucs' sole campaign of the 1970s without a first or second-place finish.